Thoughts: On “Business Sutra” by Bibek Debroy

BibekBusiness Sutra, A Very Indian Approach to Management, Devdutt Pattanaik, Aleph Book Company, 2013, Rs 695, pp.437.
Many words in Sanskrit have multiple meanings. सूत्र (sutra) is one of these. In this new book, “Business Sutra”, Devdutt Pattanaik mentions two of these – a string and an aphorism. The latter meaning may have been derived from the former. If you ask a specialist in Sanskrit literature, he/she will define sutra as a cryptic aphorism, like Panini or Patanjali sutras. In days when there was no written transmission, knowledge was passed through word of mouth and you needed these for ease of memorization. That meant sutras weren’t comprehensible, not without commentaries. There were many different types of commentaries – टीका, टिप्पणि, वृत्ति, वर्तिका, भाष्य. Let me not get into nuances of what each of these commentaries means. Though this book is titled “Business Sutra”, and Devdutt explains the reason for choice of title, I am inclined to take this more as a commentary. Devdutt has two distinct hats, an interest in mythology and another interest in business, management, ethics. This book splices the two interests together. Let’s state it differently. Economists talk about markets. However, each market has an institutional structure and institutions aren’t based only on rule of law and regulatory policy, but also on the social, historical and cultural context. One can’t pluck management and business practices, or any other practice for that matter, out of a vacuum.
I mentioned to someone that I was reading this book and his reaction was, “Isn’t this the same as the CNBC series?” That’s a tough one to answer, because the mediums are different. Yes, it is based on the CNBC series. But there is much more material in the book. Even if you have watched the series, or the subsequent CNBC-Awaaz series, or heard his earlier TED talk, this book is worth reading. As everyone knows, Devdutt writes (and speaks) well and you have nuggets on myths and management strung together, with some captivating pictures/cartoons (for want of better words). (The book doesn’t state it clearly, but I suspect these pictures/cartoons are also drawn by Devdutt. I detect the hand.) A word of complaint. There are always problems in rendering Sanskrit/Indian words into English, especially proper names. One can’t use diacritical marks and put off readers. Having said this, why Nara and Narayan? I would have preferred Narayana, Pandavas, Parashurama and so on. But that’s a matter of the author’s choice. Within that choice, Nara and Narayan isn’t logical. Amravati (rather than Amaravati), Sharda (instead of Sharada), Vaitarni (Vaitarani) and sattra (instead of satra) are unnecessary, even if one has a popular audience in mind. There is a vocabulary (glossary) at the end. This gives meanings of various words in the business context and in the conventional context. In the conventional category, there are some words with which I have problems – bhagavan (“a being who is never hungry but feeds others), karta (“leader”), pasha (“string”), sanskriti (“society”) are instances where one could have had a better choice of words.
Devdutt Pattanaik is always fun. There is a list of reasons on “how to reject this book”. “Devdutt Pattanaik will solve my problems” and “This is Hindu right-wing propaganda” are instances. The book proper is in three parts – an introduction constitutes the first part, the second part decodes Western, Chinese and Indian beliefs (I didn’t like this part that much) and the third part, the meat, on business sutra proper. This business sutra part is described as “a very Indian approach to management”. It is a very interesting and novel approach to management. But since Hindu right-wing propaganda has been mentioned, is this Indian or Hindu? It is actually Hindu and one might as well be clear about it. This isn’t a review. This book can’t be reviewed. It has to be read. Given the way Devdutt Pattanaik writes, it is great fun to read. There are nuggets here and there. Perhaps one shouldn’t call them wisdom. These are different ways of looking at things. They make you think and that’s Devdutt’s USP – to give a new twist to stuff one is already vaguely familiar with.