From the tangible to the intangible

Business 12 Comments

Published in Corproate Dossier ET, Feb. 11, 2011

On visiting a temple, a devotee noticed something very peculiar. Atop the door leading to the sanctum sanctorum, on the centre of the arch was a face glaring at devotees and sticking out his tongue at them. “What is that?” he wondered. In response, the deity in the shrine said, “He sees what I cannot see. He sees what devotees don’t show me. I see the pious behavior of all those who enter my temple. But he sees what is in their hearts. I see the visible and the tangible. He sees what is invisible and intangible. Ultimately what he sees is what matters.”

The devotee was familiar with the concept of saguna Brahman and nirguna Brahman. The former meant divinity with form, or divinity that is tangible while the latter meant divinity without form, or divinity without tangibility. All his life he had been told that the deity in the temple is saguna Brahman and only a gateway to the invisible intangible infinite divine, the nirguna Brahman. Now, he was hearing that even the deity was seeking the nirguna belief of the devotee not the saguna behavior that was displayed in the temple and was demonstrated for all to see.

Business depends on how people behave; how the market behaves, how the customer behaves, how partners and vendors behave; how the organization behaves. But underlying behavior is a belief. Unfortunately, belief cannot be seen; it is not seen,hence cannot be measured and it cannot be managed. However,it is vital to the success of an organization.

Beliefs lead to behavior but behavior does not mean belief. A man who respects you will be polite to you but a man who is polite to you need not respect you. Politeness is behavioral; it can be seen. Respect is belief; it cannot be seen. Management restricts itself to the saguna. Yet, what everyone yearns for is the nirguna.

Yeshwantrao has been managing hotels for the past twenty-five years. He is obessed with processes. There is a process for everything from receiving guests to bidding them goodbye, to cleaning toilets to washing vessels to serving drinks to clearing bills to sorting linen to solving employee disputes. And yet, despite all these processes, which are regularly audited by the many managers he has trained over the years, he knows the great hotels are differentiated by that unknown and non-measurable parameter that people can bring to the table. “I don’t know what it is. It is a magical intangible thing, which customers seek and people can deliver. Processes are but hygiene. You cannot live without processes but if people do not believe in the work they do, greatness will remain elusive.”

Yashwantrao equates that magical element to cooking. Given the same recipes and the same ingredients, two cooks cannot make a dish that tastes exactly the same. The difference is the nirguna that separates one cook from another.

Behavior which is saguna can be taught and enforced. But it is that intangible belief which is nirguna that enables an organization to make that giant leap from good to great. Shift in behavior can be brought about by domestication. Shift in belief demands inspiration.

  • Rashmi Nair


    Would appreciate if you can expand and explain this concept bit more.


    • Amit

      It is very simple, it is about attitudes and belief, over here in the UK we call it ‘going the extra mile’

    • Its the difference between ‘Explicit’ knowledge vs. ‘Implicit’ knowledge. Explicit is the equivalent of the Saguna while the Implicit becomes ‘Nirguna’ – one needs both to accomplish a task.

    • Soum

      I am also a reader like you and in general, a fan of Mr Devdutt. I believe what he is trying to convey with this article is the concept of causality.

      The ‘Nirguna’ is the underlying cause leading to ‘saguna’, or visible behavior. However, since ‘saguna’ can be controlled by an individual, it may not reflect the true ‘nirguna’ attitude.

      What any organization requires is people with the correct or desired ‘nirguna’, so that the desired ‘saguna’ is implicit and not enforced.

  • Rashmi Nair


    Would appreciate if you can expand and explain this concept bit more.


    • rajesh gawade

      I am just simple reader like you, but what I understand is as follows.
      What matters more is Nirguna behavior not Saguna behavior.
      Nirguna -what is there in our mind or behavior of the person when he is not controlled by any restriction.
      Saguna-How we behave under restictions.

      Example: One can have less respect for girls (This if Nirguna behavior as we cannot measure) but moment he enters office he shows false respect to his manager who is a lady, talk very politely with her (Saguna Behavior can be measured).
      What matters for god is Nirguna Behavior Not saguna?

      I hope I have not confused you and what I explained is correct.

  • But i think the whole world and its people appreciate Saguna Behaviour more than Nirguna.

    Its just like ‘Science’…what you see is what you believe in.

    So people want Love and appreciate love when it is shown to them.

    But they dont appreciate that Love which is not shown by their Strict parents but which is far more that any other Lover can Love them…

    The whole world is a Show off world where Nirguna attitude is only Shunned and Saguna attitude is Appreciated….

    Where will the Nirguna people go except maybe to GOD !!!

    • Vincy

      In many ways our beliefs (nirguna)influence our outwardly behaviour (saguna).

      As children we may not directly appreciate the strictness shown by our parents but as we grow up most of us realise the good intention and purpose behind the ‘tough love’.

      At times we might indulge in show off(aah the weaknesses of human nature!)..some more than others.. but a simple hand made greeting card gifted by a friend on a rainy day would leave a much greater impression on our minds than a costly present received on one’s birthday!

      It just goes to show that saguna behaviour inspired through nirguna attitude is ideal and at some level without consciously realising it, most of us know this.

  • Giriraj Bhatia

    It is like gifts we receive. However beautiful the gift packing may be, if the gift is not good it is not cherished. We may keep on appreciating the gift by its packing till the time the wrapping is removed.

  • RC

    My understanding of this is it is like comparing food that is made with love and food that is cooked by someone who doesn’t know or care about you (as a relative or guest). The food prepared with love or care (nirguna) will taste better because of the intent.

    Similarly, if a customer is served with care and good intent, although not in ways that have a physical (saguna) manifestation, it is bound to be felt/appreciated by the customer.

    Saguna is important, but the pairing with nirguna makes it unbeatable. When the hygiene of a customer’s surroundings is maintained (clean bathroom, clean sheets, empty and clean trash bin, etc.) these are saguna. The hygiene could be tied to doing a routine duty (it’s my job) or because of the doers occupation with a promotion or other personal reason. When done selflessly with the care of the customer in mind, it becomes combined with nirguna.

  • murthy

    the difference between saguna and nirguna is probably the element of self indulgence.. the acts done with the involvement of self are saguna and acts done without the involvement of self are nirguna… as gunas are attributes of self…and selfless acts have an inherent fragrance that is always appreciated .no self means …no mind,,

  • Jasmine

    Its absolutely amazing Dev Dutt…