Culture is a reaction to nature, and this understanding of our ancestors is transmitted generation from generation in the form of stories, symbols and rituals, which are always indifferent to rationality. And so, when you study it, you realizethat different people of the world have a different understanding of the world. Different people see things differently — There indeed are different viewpoints.
There is my world and there is your world, and my world is always better than your world, because my world, you see, is rational and yours is superstition. Yours is faith. Yours is illogical. This is the root of the clash of civilizations. It took place, once, in 326 B.C. on the banks of a river called the Indus, now in Pakistan. This river lends itself to India’s name. India. Indus.
Alexander, a young Macedonian, met there what he called a “gymnosophist,” which means “the naked, wise man.” We don’t know who he was. Perhaps he was a Jain monk, like Bahubali over here, the Gomateshwara Bahubali whose image is not far from Mysore. Or perhaps he was just a yogi who was sitting on a rock, staring at the sky and the sun and the moon.
Alexander asked, “What are you doing?” and the gymnosophist answered, “I’m experiencing nothingness.” Then the gymnosophist asked,”What are you doing?” and Alexander said, “I am conquering the world.” And they both laughed.Each one thought that the other was a fool. The gymnosophist said, “Why is he conquering the world? It’s pointless.” And Alexander thought, “Why is he sitting around, doing nothing? What a waste of a life.” They must have found each other ‘Stupid’
To understand this difference in viewpoints, we have to understand the subjective truth of Alexander — his myth, and the mythology that constructed it. Alexander’s mother, his parents, his teacher Aristotle told him the story of Homer’s “Iliad.” They told him of a great hero called Achilles,who, when he participated in battle, victory was assured, but when he withdrew from the battle,defeat was inevitable. “Achilles was a man who could shape history, a man of destiny, and this is what you should be, Alexander.” That’s what he heard.
“What should you not be? You should not be Sisyphus, who rolls a rock up a mountain all dayonly to find the boulder rolled down at night. Don’t live a life which is monotonous, mediocre, meaningless. Be spectacular! — like the Greek heroes, like Jason, who went across the sea with the Argonauts and fetched the Golden Fleece. Be spectacular like Theseus, who entered the labyrinth and killed the bull-headed Minotaur. When you play in a race, win! — because when you win, the exhilaration of victory is the closest you will come to the ambrosia of the gods.”
Because, you see, the Greeks believed you live only once, and when you die, you have to cross the River Styx. And if you have lived an extraordinary life,you will be welcomed to Elysium, or what the French call “Champs-Élysées” – the heaven of the heroes.
But these are not the stories that the gymnosophist heard. He heard a very different story. He heard of a man called Bharat, after whom India is called Bhārata. Bharat also conquered the world. And then he went to the top-most peak of the greatest mountain of the center of the world called Meru.And he wanted to hoist his flag to say, “I was here first.” But when he reached the mountain peak, he found the peak covered with countless flags of world-conquerors before him, each one claiming “‘I was here first’ … that’s what I thought until I came here.” And suddenly, in this canvas of infinity,Bharat felt insignificant. This was the mythology of the gymnosophist.
You see, he had heroes, like Ram — Raghupati Ram and Krishna, Govinda Hari. But they were not two characters on two different adventures. They were two lifetimes of the same hero. When the Ramayana ends the Mahabharata begins. When Ram dies, Krishna is born. When Krishna dies, eventually he will be back as Ram.
You see, the Indians also had a river that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead. But you don’t cross it once. You go to and fro endlessly. It was called the Vaitarani. You go again and again and again. Because, you see, nothing lasts forever in India, not even death. And so, you have these grand rituals where great images of mother goddesses are built and worshiped for 10 days … And what do you do at the end of 10 days?You dunk it in the river. Because it has to end. And next year, she will come back. What goes around always comes around, and this rule applies not just to man, but also the gods. You see, the gods have to come back again and again and again as Ram, as Krishna. Not only do they live infinite lives,but the same life is lived infinite times till you get to the point of it all. Call it Christmas if you will.
Two different mythologies. Which is right? Two different mythologies, two different ways of looking at the world. One linear, one cyclical. One believes this is the one and only life. The other believes this is one of many lives. And so, the denominator of Alexander’s life was one. So, the value of his life was the sum total of his achievements. The denominator of the gymnosophist’s life was infinity.So, no matter what he did, it was always zero. And there are people who believe, it is this mythological paradigm that inspired Indian mathematicians to discover the number zero. Who knows?
And that brings us to the mythology of business. If Alexander’s belief influenced his behavior, if the gymnosophist’s belief influences his behavior,then it was bound to influence the business they were in. You see, what is business but the result of how the market behaves and how the organization behaves? And if you look at cultures around the world, all you have to do is understand the mythology and you will see how they behave and how they do business.
Take a look. If you live only once, in one-life cultures around the world, you will see an obsession with binary logic, absolute truth, standardization, absoluteness, linear patterns in design. But if you look at cultures which have cyclical and based on infinite lives, you will see a comfort with fuzzy logic, with opinion, with contextual thinking, with everything is relative, sort of – mostly.
You look at art. Look at the ballerina, how linear she is in her performance. And then look at the Indian classical dancer, the Kuchipudi dancer, the Bharatanatyam dancer, curvaceous.
And then look at business. Standard business model: vision, mission, values, processes.Sounds very much like the journey through the wilderness to the promised land, with the commandments held by the leader. And if you comply, you will go to heaven.
But in India there is no “the” promised land. There are many promised lands, depending on your station in society, depending on your stage of life.You see, businesses are not run as institutions, by the idiosyncrasies of individuals. It’s always about taste. It’s always about my taste.
So pick your poison for truth, but do so wisely.
Source: Ted Talk by DD Patnaik. Based on the mythological and historical evidence. Rewritten by Abhinandan Chatterjee