21 Dec, 2007, 0444 hrs IST,TNN
Most people in the corporate world have been educated in the modern scientific education system. They have gone through school where they learnt language, mathematics, science , history and geography. Then they went through college specialising either in science or arts or commerce . And yet, despite a relatively standardised education system, everyone is different.
Do these differences matter? Do we simply focus on their qualifications, knowledge and skills and ignore the influence of culture? Different cultures look at the world differently. And this affects their attitude to life and work. Half the world, for example, believes there is life after death. The other half believes, there is no life after death. One half of the world believes life is determined by fate. Other half believes life is determined by free will.
Who is right? Do such belief systems affect our day-to-day conduct at work? Will a person who subscribes to fatalism have the same drive as one who believes in free will? Who will have a greater sense of urgency – one who believes there is only one life with only one chance or one who believes this is just one of the many lives one can live? Differences in cultures manifests in the stories they tell.
The earliest Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are tales of heroes – Achilles in the one and Odysseus in the other. Both face calamities thrust upon them by angry gods. In the Iliad, it is Apollo who shoots arrows of disease at the Greek army prompting a series of events that so infuriates the passionate Achilles that he withdraws from the battlefield.
In the Odyssey, it is the sea-god Poseidon whose storms delays the homecoming of Odysseus by ten years. In both cases, the men triumph against the odds through sheer grit and determination. The gods are unable to hold them back. Both epics glorify the refusal of man to submit to the boundaries imposed by god. Greatness lies in transgression. These Greek epics inspired what is today recognised as the Western celebration of the individual spirit.
But the West is influenced by another great epic — the Bible. Biblical stories which evolved in the Near East and Middle East belong to a heritage that is common to Jews, Christians and Muslims. In these tales there are no gods. There was one almighty God (spelt in singular and in upper case).
Unlike the gods, this God is not threatened by man; he loves man. He casts man out of Heaven when man transgresses his laws. Return is possible to the primal bliss only by submitting to the wisdom of the divine. Unlike the Greek way, glory lies not in transgression but in obedience. Now compare these with the earliest Hindu epics – Ramayan and Mahabharata.
These are not tales of individual heroes. These are family dramas , tales of householders, men whose glory came not from lonely adventures far away from home but through engagement with relatives – brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons, and daughters.
These epics have gods, Devas, and God, Bhagavan. There are even goddesses (Sachi and Ganga) and Goddesses (Lakshmi, Durga). Here the hero is God. But he is also mortal. The divine exists here not to create problems or laws for man but to teach man how to cope with the problems of life.
The approach is different in both epics. In Ramayan, the protagonist, Ram, sacrifices everything to uphold the law while in Mahabharat, the protagonist , Krishna, keeps breaking the law. Both upholding and breaking the law is done in the pursuit of ‘dharma’ . This word means stability, order, righteousness.
Variation in approach is attributed to the fact that the two belong to different periods in time – Ram belongs to Treta Yuga while Krishna belongs to Dvapara Yuga. Everything is contextual. But dharma does not bring permanence. Eventually the world will collapse. After death will come rebirth. Another world with another Treta Yuga and another Dvapara Yuga with another Ram and another Krishna.
Both the Greek and Biblical ways assume there is only one life and one way to live life: individual achievement according to the Greeks and collective surrender for the Jews, Christians and Muslims. In the Hindu way, as in the Buddhist and Jain way, there are many lives. Everything is cyclical and repetitive. The only way to make sense of this merry-go-round is to step back and reflect on life.
Do these cultures matter in the corporate world? They do, because all of us are churned out of these cultures. Over time these cultures have mingled and merged with each other. Hence a little bit of all cultures lie within us. When you think logical and behave individualistically, know that the seed was planted into human thought by the Greeks.
When you reject hierarchy, embrace community and surrender to a higher reality before whom all are equal, recognise its roots in the Biblical tradition. When you think contextual, thank the Hindus. The Chinese gave the world the value of harmony (Tao) and the need to organise flux through ritual and discipline (Confucius).
Some of these traits are more dominant than others. This becomes obvious when, despite intense attempts to create a common corporate culture, one notices the attitudinal and behavioural differences amongst employees of the same MNC belonging to different countries. A leader may be an MBA from Harvard – but it will always matter whether he is White or Black, Christian or Muslim, Indian or Nepalese, gay or straight, Bengali or Tamilian, Brahmin or Dalit. The global village may never ever have a single attitude towards work and life. And this is not necessarily a bad thing.