Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

December 15, 2012

First published December 14, 2012

 in Random House India

Indianomix – Mythical or Modern

This is an exclusive excerpt from Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya’s book “Indianomix,”  published by Random House India on Dec. 6. This excerpt is adapted from the fourth section of Chapter 5, “Mythical or Modern?”

Devdutt Pattanaik isn’t your typical business management guru. He’s a medical doctor by training, not an MBA. And rather than spewing Harvard Business School case studies, his approach to management issues is decidedly unconventional. When we caught up with him in Mumbai, we were interested in understanding his very unusual job description. When he’s not lecturing, consulting, or writing based on his unique perspective on management issues, he serves as ‘Chief Belief Officer’ for Future Group. The company, headed by entrepreneur Kishore Biyani, is one of India’s biggest and most important business conglomerates. Among other things the ubiquitous Big Bazaar, a chain of department stores all over India, anchors their retail business.

So what’s a Chief Belief Officer? Is he supposed to impart or validate the beliefs of the company’s employees? Far from it. As Devdutt describes it, his mission is to get people to question their beliefs from the ground up and then use the insight they gain to rethink their goals, objectives and even their purpose in life and in business. What makes him unique is that he accomplishes this not through psychoanalysis, as you might have expected given his medical background, but from investigating the foundation of beliefs themselves. In Devdutt’s world view, mythology is central. This might seem strange from a Western point of view where mythology is understood rather narrowly as a set of traditional beliefs often associated with religion and generally seen as irrational or at best non-rational in our modern scientific world. The Greek word ‘mythos’, after all, refers to a story, so mythology on this view is basically a collection of stories.

Devdutt refutes this narrow vision. He defines a myth as ‘subjective truth’. Any belief which someone subjectively holds potentially classifies as a myth. Equally, he critiques the standard Western assumption that scientific knowledge is rational and all other traditional knowledge, including mythological, is non-rational. As he sees the world, all beliefs are fundamentally irrational at their root. It’s just that the Western scientific view of the world has become so dominant, or ‘hegemonic’ in the jargon used by cultural theorists, that everyone assumes by default that this is the only correct way to view the world and all other ways must be inferior and irrational. Devdutt turns this idea on its head and argues that the apparently secular capitalism of the West in fact is a thinly veiled descendent of the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian mythological traditions that have dominated Western civilization.

While this is a controversial hypothesis, the close relationship between economic and political ideologies on the one hand and religion on the other shouldn’t be. After all, it was Max Weber, the founder of modern sociology, who famously theorized that capitalism could arise in northern Europe because of the spirit of thrift and discipline embodied in the Protestant work ethic. Devdutt in a sense is taking Weber head on by suggesting, to the contrary, that capitalism really is only a disguised version of Protestant Christianity and not a logical outgrowth of it.

These ideas are not as bizarre or far-fetched as they might seem. Mircea Eliade was one of the great scholars of religion and mythology of the twentieth century. Originally from Romania, and after many wanderings through Europe, India and beyond, he ended his career as a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago. In some of his writings, Eliade argued that modern ideologies such as capitalism or Marxism are nothing other than ‘secularized mythology’. Memorably, he described the Marxist belief in the victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie as accomplished through revolution to be ‘a truly Messianic Judeo-Christian ideology’. Jesus Christ and Karl Marx aren’t so far apart, after all.

Such a heterodox approach questions the often unspoken idea that there’s one ‘right’ way to run a modern business, which is according to textbook Western management theories as taught in business schools. Such theories would hold, say, that a business, if it is to attract investors, must have a ‘vision statement’, of the type that would be provided by hiring a well-known management consulting firm. As Devdutt argues, most home-grown Indian businesses don’t follow a Western-style business plan. Rather, they operate as they have for generations, in a manner that seems well-suited to their particular environment but which may not necessarily make sense elsewhere. But this home-grown approach by no means prevents them from turning a tidy profit.

Likewise, conventional management theory would hold that a large company must have a well-defined organizational hierarchy with precise designations such as chief executive officer, chief operating officer, etc. And indeed large publicly traded corporations do have such conventional hierarchies.  But the majority of Indian businesses aren’t traded on the stock exchange; most small and medium-sized businesses, and even some larger ones, are privately held and are run by their founding families with organizational hierarchies that are amorphous at best. Devdutt’s own designation at Future Group is perhaps a cheeky allusion to this.

Mythology for Devdutt serves the role of helping to clarify people’s thinking and get back to basics. He resists the notion that his is a uniquely Indian or even Hindu approach to business management. Rather, he claims that he draws on the relevant mythological tradition based on whomever he’s advising or speaking to. So, since most of his work is in India he tends to draw on Hindu and related mythology, but if he were in the US for example, he would draw on Judeo-Christian or Greco-Roman mythology as appropriate.

Here’s an example of his method at work. According to classical economic theory and business management models as well, the mission of a business should be to maximize its profits (economics) or shareholder value (business management). What would be the effects of a model based solely on the profit motive? In Hindu mythology, Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and is an object of worship. But she’s never worshipped in isolation, but instead, along with other members of the Hindu pantheon such as, for example, her consort Vishnu, the god who regulates and preserves the universe. What’s the lesson? That the pursuit of profit is fine, but if it becomes single-minded and to the exclusion of all other objectives, you’re likely to get into trouble.

If this sounds like a radical perspective, think again.  Observers from Wall Street, the US Treasury Department, and the International Monetary Fund, bastions of the established order of global capitalism, themselves will concede that the recent global financial crisis clearly points to the failures of poorly regulated financial markets and unfettered global capital flows, in which banks made loans they never should have and poor Americans took out mortgages they couldn’t afford. Greater prudence on the part of both borrowers and lenders might have prevented such a crisis. The same could be said for the Euro crisis unfolding in 2012 at the time we write this, precipitated by German and other Western banks lending money to governments like Greece, which the banks knew they’d never be in a position to repay and those governments accepting the money also knowing the same thing.

Conventional economics would suggest that the missing element in these financial crises was the appropriate prophylactic government regulation, and that is certainly a view we would endorse. But this myth-based perspective offers a complementary view. One such as Devdutt might ask, perhaps the real root of the crisis was the unbridled desire for profit that would make stringent regulation necessary in the first place? Whether you agree or not, it’s certainly true, at the very least, that individual prudence and government regulation are complements, if not substitutes: a dose of each might have helped prevent the crisis, or perhaps attenuate it. Interestingly, both India and China averted a financial crisis and were spared the worst of the global downturn in the first instance because they didn’t take the orthodox advice and didn’t completely open up their financial markets.

One interpretation is that the Indians and Chinese were simply better economists than the folks in New York or Washington! But another interpretation would be that cultural traits in both countries led them to adopt a more prudent approach to opening up their markets rather than embracing the free-for-all ethos of Anglo-American capitalism. By the same token, the Russians too, have followed a different path of economic and political development, not necessarily to the liking of the West (or indeed of their own liberals). The so-called ‘Washington consensus’, if it ever existed, has now been replaced by sets of different, country-specifi c policies, followed in the major emerging economies, from India and China to Brazil, Russia, and South Africa. Again, we’re not suggesting that the conventional economic perspectives on globalization are necessarily wrong; far from it. We suggest merely that supplementing these with a culturally sensitive gaze gives greater depth and nuance to our understanding of why things happen the way they do in different places.

Sometimes, all that’s needed in interpreting the difference between how things happen in the West and how they happen in India is a dose of common sense.

-Adapted from Indianomix by Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya, to be published by Random House India on Dec. 6, 2012. Copyright © by Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya. Printed by arrangement with Random House India. 

Ms. Subramanya writes Economics Journal, a regular column for The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time. Mr. Dehejia is an economics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

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