Published November 16, Hindu Business Line

It is not often that you meet a person who takes you back in time to the bygone ages, to Alexander and the gymnosophist on the banks of the Indus, and to the early days of the clash of civilisations. But Devdutt Pattanaik, Chief Belief Officer at Future Group, believes in looking at modern life and even business through the lens of mythology.

According to him, mythology is a collection of stories that construct the cultural understanding of people. People can be understood through their mythology, he says. He talks of a world that is logical, factual, scientific, linear and standardised, and of another world that is emotional, personal, contextual and individual. “Different people see things differently, and hence when Alexander met the naked wise monk, each thought the other was a fool,” Pattanaik says.

And when one says ‘my world’ is better than ‘your world’, civilisations clash, he adds. The world or way of life one believes in is shaped by what the person has heard, learnt and has been made to understand, says Pattanaik. For example, Alexander has heard about Homer’s Iliad, about Achilles, Janus and Theseus, and he has been made to believe that if he is in a race he must win, and only if he lives an extraordinary life will he go to Elysium, as well as in the concept of one life. On the other hand, the gymnosophist has read about Rama and Krishna and Bharat, and has been made to believe that nothing lasts forever, even death. He believes that life repeats itself again and again, and the same life is lived infinite times till one gets the meaning of it all.

Using this analogy, Pattanaik goes on to say that because there is this basic difference in the Western and Indian way of thinking, the best business practices developed in Japan, the UK and the US will not work in India. To be successful in India, one must enhance sensitivity to Indian beliefs, he adds.

“Business is the result of how the market behaves and how the organisation behaves. And if the organisation behaves in such a way that it will make the market happy then the market will reward it,” he says. “But for that the organisation will have to understand the beliefs of the consumer.And once it understands that, it must work with the belief system and try to empathise with it,” he says.

In the west, people look for money and growth opportunities in a job. But in India, it is also about a sense of pride in working with a particular organisation. A job gives an Indian a social status and emotional security, Pattanaik says.

The traditional western business models are based on institutions and processes, and people are secondary to it. But in India, one will have to transform people rather than transform processes, he says. “For example, Indians do not like taking instructions. The moment you tell an Indian what to do, you are touching a very raw nerve.You will have to make him feel as if he is the idea generator. Only then will he take ownership of the task. But this shift is not easy,” he adds.