Published in Corporate Dossier, ET, February 03, 2012

Business is a yagna, the ancient fire ritual described in Vedic scriptures. Into the flames, the Yajaman makes offerings exclaiming, “Svaha!” this of me I offer, hoping that the Bhagavan, or deity he has invoked, satisfied with his offerings, emerges from the flames and says, “Tathastu!” as you wish.

Who is the Yajaman? It is the shareholder who invests his resources and expects dividends in return; the employee who invests skills and expects a salary in return; the customer who invests a share of his wallet and expects products, services or ideas in return. Every exchange is a yagna. Anyone who initiates the exchange is the Yajaman; anyone who closes the exchange is the Bhagavan. Svaha is the investment; tathastu is the return on investment. Everyone gives; everyone receives. Depending on the context, everyone is Yajaman or Bhagavan. In an ideal yagna, both Yajaman and Bhagavan should be happy.

Management Science restricts its gaze to svaha and tathastu: what is given and what is taken. These can be measured, hence managed. Everything begins with the outcome in sight, the desired tathastu; the svaha is designed accordingly. Great attention is paid to the offering, to the gestures, to the exclamations. No attention is paid to the Yajaman or the Bhagavan. Their beliefs, feelings, and fears cannot be measured, or managed, hence do not matter. Their presence is critical but their personalities have no impact on the outcome. Both are relevant but replaceable. The yagna exists,independent of the gaze of the Yajaman and Bhagavan.

In a traditional yagna, however, what matters most is the bhaav of the Yajaman, the emotional intent underlying the ritual. This depends on how the Yajaman sees the Bhagavan, which in turn depends on how he sees himself. The quality of the yagna depends on the gaze of the Yajaman; this is shaped by the Yajaman’s beliefs, how he sees the world and himself. Should he be replaced by someone else, the belief will be different, the gaze will be different, hence the bhaav will be different. This will surely impact the outcome. The yagna thus,has no independent existence outside the Yajaman’s subjective truth.

At a fast-food joint, Management Science prevails. Sadhana stands at the counter and speaks with a smile, in broken English, even when the customer does not understand English. Sadhana knows that the customer can speak Marathi, which she is fluent in, but she will continue to speak in English. That is the process designed to create a particular customer experience. Every consumer is treated to the same consumer experience. Every employee is bound by the same rules. Individual prejudices and preferences are not allowed. Surely that is fair in the interests of standardization? But why does she feel dehumanized. Like she does not matter. Like only her obedience matters, not her intelligence. And she cannot complain because she is very well compensated. Why does she feel like a domesticated animal, not a fulfilled human? This is no yagna. She is neither Yajaman, nor a Bhagavan. She is the karya-karta, who does what the karta tells her to do.