Defining the Moral Purpose of Business Leaders

Apr 30, 2014 | Civilisation, India, TheColumnist

The Columnist (TC): Why do you think religion is important to business leaders today?

Dr Kala Acharya (KA): Today religion is important to business leaders, as they have become aware that attainment of wealth, the prime goal of business is reckless without a strong foundation. What could that foundation be? Mahabharata one of the Indian scriptures says that Dharma, which is righteousness or piety, is an indispensable basis for wealth and property, the overall material prosperity. It admonishes human beings ‘to seek material prosperity but not by illegitimate means.’ It is only religion that tells man that one should be free from greed. From greed arises evil. One should give and not accumulate just for the sake of accumulating. The Atharvaveda, the most ancient scripture of Hinduism says, “Earn by hundred hands, give by thousand hands.” Thus religion serves as a road map in matters of how to earn wealth and more importantly how it should be spent.

TC: India is changing rapidly and an election is just round the corner. What is at stake for India at this moment in history?

KA: At this juncture people of India have the option between secularism and religion. However if we rightly understand these two concepts we realise that they do not necessarily conflict. We should be concerned with the material or secular needs of our people in the fields of education, economics, politics and so on, and, at the same time, we should recognise the fundamental role of Dharma – which pervades, all spheres of human life. There exist in India religiously sensitive societies. At this moment what is at stake is a broader outlook. The perspective of political parties can be either inclusive or exclusive depending on their respective policies.  Both attitudes go to extreme ends to serve their purpose.  The middle path is missing. The essential unity of mankind will be at stake if the policies are used to separate societies and to provoke communities against each other. Peace may be at stake. What is needed is a balanced attitude rooted in prudence.

TC: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once chastised the wealthy in India to tone down their display of wealth. Few leaders in the world would directly appeal to their business leaders like this. Why do you think he did that?

KA: An extravagant display of wealth leaves a deep impact in the psyche of people. Even though the economically lower strata in India is moving towards better economic conditions there is a wide gap between the haves and the have nots. At this crucial moment, those who possess huge amount of wealth should control themselves from displaying it, for it would lead to insecurity, hatred and a divisive attitude in the minds of financially weaker members of society. Speaking positively, we can say that there is a need for an integrated society in which those who are wealthy hold a patronizing attitude towards the financially weaker sections; if it happens the scenario can change faster.  Also the message has an implicit meaning.  It is not only display of wealth that is to be avoided.  It is the extravagant expenditure which if controlled can be of great help to a country like India where a large number of people are below poverty level.  The excess can be diverted to them.  One of the old books on ethics in India, the Nitishataka tells us, ‘Wealth has three destinies – charity, enjoyment or destruction.’  So charity without an egoistic attitude is the implicit meaning of the message of Hon. Prime Minister.

TC: As an expert in Indian culture, how can business leaders apply strategies that are inspired by it which will be relevant to our times?

KA: Business leaders should remember that business is not all about making money.  Indian culture speaks of ‘sharing’ instead of ‘grabbing’; it does not foster a competitive attitude, but encourages a frame of mind where one finds altruistic joy in others’ achievements.  The Isha Upanishad, a scripture of Hinduism says, “Enjoy, with a detached mind, do not covet for wealth that rightfully belong to others.”  Thus the scriptures proclaim that we are trustees of wealth, God alone is its owner.  So wealth has to be used for the good of many. Business leaders should apply the concept of trusteeship of wealth which has to be used for not only individual development but for the development of humankind on the earth.

TC: You have spoken about ethics in business, but many business leaders feel that the environment, especially the political landscape, makes it near impossible to do so. What is your view?

KA: Political environment is not outside our life. In democratic countries it is we who decide our representatives. And then we think that our responsibility is over. We keep on blaming the politicians for the circumstances. The fact remains that we do not audit their performance, keep quiet when we should speak and in the end pass on the responsibility of consequences to politicians. If they are to be blamed they can be blamed partly for non compliance. We are to be blamed for our passive role.

The youngsters who aspire to enter government should be given training in the culture and heritage of the nation, her religion, the ethical norms prevailing in it and also in universal values, religious and secular.

TC: Somaiya Vidyavihar aspires to be the 21st century Nalanda. Can you share the various programmes that enable it to live up to its mission?

KA: The young generation opts for courses that assure means of livelihood and life of comforts. Being a doctor, an engineer, an entrepreneur is their dream. Nobody thinks about becoming a good human being. On this background our educational complex lays emphasis on value-based education. Our founder, late Padmabhushan Karamshi Somaiya strongly believed in the dictum that there is no better virtue than humanity. Our courses will give an opportunity to engineering students to study philosophy and medical students to learn alternative practices along with Allopathic. Science faculty students may learn ethics and management students will come across the traditional texts or scriptures in order to know what they speak on management, governance and ethics. We are planning to train physicians in naturopathy and yogic practices too. Several new courses which did not have a place in university curriculum have emerged and they have brought behavioral changes in students. Most of the courses are outcome of the innovative ideas of Mr Samir Somaiya, President at Somaiya Vidyavihar.

TC: The Nalanda in ancient times hosted foreigners, and had a strong relationship with China. How is Somaiya Vidyavihar advancing the unity of Asia through education?

KA: It would be apt to mention that Dr Shantilal K. Somaiya, former Vice president of Somaiya Vidyavihar received the prestigious Luminosa Award at Mariapolis, New York, USA in July 2002 from the Focolare movement for his contribution to Inter religious unity through education.

Dr Radhakrishnan has said that if the world has to die in violence, in catastrophe, in misery, terror, and chaos; if it should fail to bring much that is good, beautiful and true, and instead spills blood, wasting lives and warping the spirit of many, it is because we are unable to peacefully adjust ourselves to the world order.

In my opinion it is necessary that there is proper integration in inner and outer order, the human soul and the world around him. This needs cultivation of spirituality in human minds. Unity of Asia is possible through unity of minds, thoughts and actions for which we impart spiritual education. But we look even further than that, we look at the unity of the entire world. And for this reason almost every year we hold an international interfaith dialogue which so far has attracted scholars and students from different nations of every continent belonging to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and so on.

TC: In your personal view, what is the purpose of a business entity?

KA: A business entity is the bedrock of nation’s prosperity. While an organisation aims at securing wealth, it has to see that its pursuit of material prosperity does not result in depriving others from their wealth. Wealth may cause oppression depending on the manner it is distributed. So the surplus has to be spent diligently with prudence, for protecting organisation, society and nation.

Wealth is a source of power, and on power depends the business. Finally the business depends on whether by spending the wealth, it has ensured the welfare of people. Wealth will increase when the stakeholders are protected. Wealth that is amassed, like the honey in a beehive, invites only its plunder. Hence the surplus should be employed in charity and in public works. Just as one who desires to obtain milk cannot get it by cutting off the udder of a milk-giving cow, similarly a business cannot prosper where workers are exploited to a great extent.

TC: Finally, why do you love what you do?

KA: I love what I do because I put others’ interests ahead of mine. And I get joy in doing so. Even if I do not possess material wealth or I cannot claim to have earned happiness in the conventional meaning of the term, still I am happy, for in my small way I help others. I try to live a meaningful life which looks beyond success understood only as money and power. For me, a meaningful life is a way of fulfilling my role on earth and my contribution to society.


This interview was conducted for The Columnist, a newsletter by Consulus that offers ideas on business, design and world affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Consulus.

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