Olympicmotto

The point of it all

Business, World Mythology 4 Comments

Published in Corporate Dossier, Economic Times, 18 April 2008

The Olympic motto ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius,’ is Latin for ‘Swifter, Higher, Stronger’. The roots of this ideal of continuous relentless improvement lies in the ancient Greek world, where the Olympic Games were a sacred ritual. Through participation, and especially through winning, the athlete reached the ‘zone’ that brought him closer to the gods. That was the whole point of the games – to be better than what one was, break the assumed limitations imposed on man by the gods.

It is this ideal that governs businesses today and propels the desire to be bigger, grow faster, ride up the value chain. Our business models do have their roots in Western business practices which in turn have been shaped by ancient Greek ideals. Business leaders are heroes, like Ulysses and Herakles. They are expected to go where no one has gone before on great solitary adventures, creating new markets, penetrating old ones, fighting the demons of opposition and emerging triumphant. The whole point of the game is to win – to outlast the competition, to rise above mediocrity, to create new horizons, to shatter old boundaries. Little wonder then that the Greek god of business and trade was Hermes, who had wings on his sandals, always on the run.

But why do we assume this to be the universal model? When Alexander came to India and said that he wanted to conquer the world, the local sages asked, “Why?”

These sages must have been familiar with the Jain story of Bharata, who conquered the whole world and then ordered stone carvers to climb up the Mount Meru, the mountain in the centre of the world, and carve on its peak his name, declaring him the first one who conquered the world. The stone carvers climbed the mountain but returned soon after, their faces glum. “We cannot do it, sir,” they said. “Why?” asked Bharata. “We cannot explain, go up and see for yourself.” Bharata climbed the mountain and when he reached the peak he found every inch of the peak covered with names of former kings, each one declaring, “I too conquered the world.” Suddenly, Bharata realized the pointlessness of any achievement. The event forced him to sit back and reflect on life.

The same story is retold in Hindu mythology in a different way. Indra wanted Vishwakarma, his architect, to build him a palace befitting his stature as king of the gods. A great palace was built but Indra found it was not good enough. “Make it bigger, grander,” said Indra. So another palace was built. Even that was not good enough. A frustrated Vishwakarma went to Vishnu who promised to sort things out. Vishnu approached Indra in the form of a boy and took a tour of the palace. “Very good,” he said, “Very good indeed but not as good as that of the other Indra.” The remark intrigued Indra. “What do you mean, the other Indra?” he asked the boy. And the boy explained, “The Indras who existed before you. The Indras who will exist after you. The Indras who exist right now in other worlds.” And Indra said, “What do you mean? Are there others like me?” And the boy said, “Of course. Countless others.” Suddenly Indra felt small and insignificant in the grand cosmos. He was but a grain of sand on a beach of Indras. With this realization, his life became less about aspiration and more about introspection.

While Indians celebrated the cyclical nature of life, the Greeks despised the very idea. For the Greeks hell was becoming Sisyphus who spent all day taking a rock up the mountain only to find that the rock had rolled down at night, forcing him to do today what he had done yesterday. Glory came when one broke free, did something different and new. This made man a hero and assured him a place in the Greek heaven of the Elysian Fields. Greeks broke free from the monotony of existence by achieving something spectacular in the material world itself. But for Indians breaking free meant breaking free from the material world itself. Unlike the Greek world where the point of life was self-actualization, the point of life in the Indian world was self-realization. In India, the great question was never ‘how can you be swifter, higher and stronger’ but ‘why should you be swifter, higher and stronger?’ If introspection revealed that the point of one’s actions was indulging the ego, then one was a fool, further entrapping oneself in the mire of materialism. The wise man worked not to indulge the ego, but to triumph over it – and this happened when one truly and sincerely works for others.

A business leader may argue that current business models are about others. That it is not (only) about ego and greed, it is also about creating jobs, democratizing wealth, and about survival. It is our responsibility to help more and more people live a better standard of life – hence we need to grow.  And we must keep running ahead of the competition before they gain ground and overwhelm us. Both these viewpoints reaffirm that we are increasingly subscribing to the Greek way of thinking and less to the Indian way of thinking. No more is life a cycle, now it is a flat road where we are being chased by demons. If we run fast enough we will reach that wonderful place where there is no poverty, no strife, no competition. Such beliefs only bemuse Indians sages, for they believe you cannot change the cyclical world, only your viewpoint.

Is the Indian belief in fate and rebirth the reason why Indians are not so aggressive? Is that why Indians seem happy despite poverty? Is that why Indians are so comfortable bending the rules – how does it matter anyway? Is that why Indians are so tolerant of everything, even terrible infrastructure and bad governance? Is that a good thing? Do we want to change – become more Greek? Not passive sages but pro-active heroes?

As the world gets smaller, we are being led to believe that there is only one game to be played, with only one set of rules and one set of ideals. We are being asked to be swifter, higher and stronger. We are basking in the glory of young achievers and following the footsteps of global winners. But sometimes, maybe sometimes, we need to take time out from the Greek world and ask ourselves this very Indian question – wherefrom comes our ambition and where is it taking us? Maybe the answer will create a workplace that is less paranoid, less aggressive, less stressed and more at peace with itself. And that may not be so bad.

  • utpal

    zis was gut

  • The myth of Sisyphus has a parallel in Malayalam Mythology too. There is a character called NarayanaPrandhan (prandhan means mad one). He too rolled a rock up a mountain and then letting it roll down, exulting in its freedom. Maybe the similarity of the stories but very differing conclusions illustrates the difference in world views you spoke about.

    – KM

  • Vinayak Iyer

    Hope your articles are viewed by the so called “Young Achievers” and “Performers” and “Task Managers” and make them think that, what they are doing daily is a rat race, even if you win, you still a rat (maybe a Citius, Altius or a Fortius rat)…

    Thanks Devdutt!

  • Harish Subramanian

    I think the basic here is “Focus”. What do we want to be? Do we want to be a USA which thrives on monetary power, or do we want to be a Bhutan which scores highest on the happiness index. I clearly feel India is at a cross roads when these two issues are considered. And clearly there is no white and black when this aspect is considered. Although i do feel that we as Indians look more on the outside rather on the inside. We try to look at success by matching with the so called “successful” countries, but we strongly cling to the social values which makes us more considerate towards people.We have to understand there will be trade offs.