Future Group's chief belief officer Devdutt Pattanaik unravels patterns from Hindu mythology, Rangoli and the Bible
Devdutt Pattanaik has one of the most unique job titles you will come across. The physician turned leadership consultant is the chief belief officer (CBO) at Future Group. A chance meeting with Future Group head honcho Kishore Biyani turned his passion of studying and writing on sacred stories, symbols and rituals and their impact on culture, into a career. As CBO, his job is to draw attention to the value of ‘belief’ (that’s subjective and can be both religious and secular), and how this invisible cultural lever shapes our decision in business.
Pattanaik is an expert in the study of Hindu mythology, a popular speaker and author of many books on mythology and management. Pattanaik is also a story consultant to Star TV. He was the keynote speaker at the Khemka Social Entrepreneurship Forum that was held in Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad on December 6th and 7th. At the special plenary, he had the audience enthralled, speaking on the topic, ‘The Indian Way- The value of belief in business.’ Making references to Hindu mythology, kolam (also called rangoli or a form of painting using various powders) and the Bible he drew parallels to modern management thinking, how corporates function and how our belief systems spills into our business transactions.
The following are the edited excerpts from his talk.
Rangoli or kolam and how they represent belief systems:
Pattanaik used kolam as a cultural symbol to talk about different belief systems of individuals and groups and how studying them closely can lead to a greater understanding of diversity in patterns.
Using visuals to highlight the points he was making, Pattanaik said that on different days, women connect the dots of the kolam in myraid new ways to create different patterns, and different women, express themselves through different patterns. Each person has a pattern, the same dots change everyday, and they can be joined differently. Our minds are the patterns and the dots represent data and knowledge. The lines drawn to connect the dots is the wisdom of an individual.
Our belief systems, he said, can expressed through art, and the connecting of the dots represents all experiences from childhood. These multiple patterns can either be looked at as chaos or they could be looked at as diversity. Everyone has their own belief systems, and we start to cluster our belief systems in different ways, to make it easy for us to understand them. Then we begin to say, this is how the Christians think, this is what the Americans believe, and so on. But the truth is that every human being has their own unique belief system that is unique to their myth. The moment we start to appreciate different patterns, which represents each individual’s belief systems, we become tolerant, and therefore better human beings. His advice: Lets expand our mind or our kolam.
Management books, the Bible and Hindu Mythology:
In his work, Pattanaik remarked that he uses stories, symbols and rituals and then juxtaposes them with management to make sense of the world. Commenting on management books, he said most of them are written by men – would they be different if women wrote them? Digging deeper, he said that a majority of the most management books were written by Americans and Europeans. What if individuals who wrote them were from other nationalities?
Pattanaik pointed out that there is an uncanny similarity between modern management and the Bible. Look at the book of Exodus, he said, it is about a prophet who promises to lead the people to the promised land. But to do that one must follow commandments, the do’s and don’ts and if people don’t follow rules there are consequences. It’s the same with in the corporate world, companies have rules to be followed including a mission, vision and goal-setting.
Pattanik then said, Indian mythology also has some commonalities with the story of the promised land and management. Stories from Puranas, contain clues to theories related to Indian management. In the Puranas, there’s not one promised land like in the Bible, but there are three promised lands. One is Swarga, where there is a wish-fulling cow called Kamadhenu: you can ask the cow for anything and your wish will be granted. There is also the wish-fulfilling tree – Kalpatharu, and Chintamani, the wish-fulfilling stone. Over here hunger is indulged, but Swarga is always under siege and Indra, the God is always insecure. In India there is no temple for the king of paradise as Indra is not worshipped.
The second promised land is Kailash, a mountain covered by snow, where there’s no hunger. Shiva, the presiding God here, is at peace. There is no insecurity, but there’s also no prosperity. At Kailash, you have to outgrow hunger, as Shiva has. But what about mere mortals with common desires? Another contradiction: Parvati, Shiva’s wife is one who never eats, but she’s also the Goddess of food.
The third promised land is Vaikunta, where there is peace and prosperity, this is a happy playground. The God here is Vishnu, who assumes different forms or Avatars, he’s constantly participating and engaging with others.
Three different promised lands, three subjective truths and each bearing its own consequence:
All the promised lands have their truths, choosing one over the other has repercussions. Human hunger is qualitatively different from that of animals, it involves power. Human beings after having a meal, immediately think of the next meal, and also about providing for the hunger of generations to come. We also empathize with the hunger of others.
Each God and each promised land represents three different paradigms. Indra signifies that one’s hunger matters first. Belief in Shiva means that one can outgrow hunger. Subscribing to Vishnu’s worldview would entail that one’s hunger matters first. In any relationship, this truth is revealed. Whose hunger matters first? With regard to parent and the child relationship, the reality is that in satisfying the child’s hunger the parent outgrows their own hunger.
When we choose our beliefs we choose our promised land. A child focuses on its own hunger, so depending on the life-stage of an individual we could inhabit different promised lands. This is the same with business as well, during the start-up stage, Pattanaik suggests, be Indra, because if you want to grow business, its critical to focus on one’s own needs.
And as the company grows, there needs to be an awareness that as a founder, you may have outgrown hunger, but employees may be in a different life-stage. What do I want to do in my life? This is an important to ask because it will determine one’s choice and belief system.
Pattanaik also spoke about the one great truth, and its shortcomings, as it leads to no subjective truth. Believing that there’s the truth out there that invalidates my truth and your truth. Good relationships are formed by recognizing your truth and my truth.
SocialStory was a partner at the Khemka Social Entrepreneurship Forum. Nelson Vinod Moses was hosted by the organizers of the event.