What’s your Sanskaar?


Published on 31st August, 2014 in The Economic Times

Don’t use the word culture. Use the word sanskaar. And see how the organization responds. The two words, rather spontaneously, evoke very different reactions amongst Indians who straddle the modern and traditional worlds continuously.

When we use the word culture, we immediately have images of cultural programmes held in schools and at associations where children do folk dance and sing classical songs. It’s all about performance of some traditional art form. But is that all culture is? A performance meant to entertain us during festival. Something nostalgic and quaint, far removed from the daily grind of the workplace. It is at best an ornament, good to have, not essential.

When we use the word sanskaar, the reaction is rather different. For sanskaar refers to upbringing in India. It is the Key Performance Indicator of parenting to most Indians. It is an indicator of family values. It shows how civilized and cultured we are.

The word sanskaar is a wordplay typical of Sanskrit. It is a combination of three roots: First: saras, which is means fluid. Second: sama, which means cyclical or closed loop. Third: ka, which means questioning, an indicator of humanity as well as divinity in the Vedas. Sanskara is then how the human mind makes sense of this cyclical world of birth and death, which we all inhabit. It is an indicator of the value placed on human existence by the family one belongs to. Every organisation needs sanskaar to show the world whether it is connected to society at large and to the environment as a whole.

In India, sanskaar is created by simply following rites of passage, also called sanskaar. In other words, both the means to create culture and culture itself mean the same thing. Typical sanskaras are: marriage, childbirth, piercing the child’s ear, tonsure of the child’s hair, the first eating of solid food, first day at school, and finally, death. Sanskaras are also linked to how festivals are celebrated, how food is served, how the house is kept, how daughters, sons, elders, guests, servants, strangers and enemies are treated. Most rituals, like all rituals, have symbolic meaning or have no meaning at all. The action needs to be performed, but what is key to the ritual performance is the underlying emotion of the action – the bhaav. Ritual with bhaav is advised. Ritual without bhaav is tolerated. Bhaav without ritual is unperceivable.

Modern management ignores bhaav as that cannot be measured. It focuses on rules (niti) and tradition (riti). In this approach, culture becomes not an expression of ideas but a rigid code of conduct that the modern man has to revolt against in order to be free. At best it becomes something to turn to nostalgically. And it is this approach to culture that is increasingly becoming popular.

In the Puranas, Shiva is unable to appreciate the sanskaar of his father-in-law Daksha for Shiva values emotions more than rituals while Daksha values rituals over emotion. The confrontation is violent.

Culture is an outcome of any human interaction. There cannot be an organisation without culture. There are levels of human culture of course in the Puranas.
• The default culture (Level 0) is the animal culture where natural instincts (prakriti) is indulged, where might is right, where domination and conflict thrive and it is all about packs and herds and grabbing nourishment and security. This is seen in organisations where there is breakdown of leadership.
• The next type of culture (Level 1) is one where the human-animal is domesticated using rules and rewards and recognition. This is seen in highly controlled workspaces.
• Another type of culture is one where one abandons all things material and gives up all relationship – the monastic culture (Level 2).
• Then comes the ecosystem (Level 3) where people are continuously encouraged, not compelled, to be sensitive to others voluntarily for their own emotional and intellectual wellbeing. This is sanskriti, where everyone knows how to behave with men, women, those older and younger, those related and unrelated, strangers and colleagues. This is aspirational.

The questions to ponder over are: is cultural critical? Do modern institutions think of culture only when the going is good? Do they see culture as a lever that enables success? More importantly, if the going is bad, does culture matter? Will culture help tide over a crisis, or will it be the cause of crisis?

In stories, sanskar is not always profitable. In the Ramayana, Surpanakha’s sanskaar allows her to approach a married man for pleasure; Sita’s sanskaar compels her to risk personal security and feed a hungry sage who turns out to be demon; Ram’s sanskaar forces him to abandon his beloved innocent wife as she is deemed queen of stained reputation. In the Mahabharata, Draupadi abandons all sanskaar and becomes violent and bloodthirsty when she is publicly abused and all family decorum is abandoned by her vile brothers-in-law, the Kauravas. Yet, this very same Draupadi recalls sanskaar when she forgives her sister-in-law Dushala’s lecherous husband, Jayadhrata, even though he tries to abduct her.

As long as culture is treated synthetically as an ornament of the good times it can never ever add real value. Only when we recognize culture as sanskaar, an indicator of our humanity, does it becomes a critical to organisational survival.