Ravi Mohan's Blog

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Karma Capitalism?

Sometimes, I toy with the idea of getting an Ivy League MBA. And then I come across something like this (via Evolving Excellence).

...For the members of the Young Presidents’ Association, meeting in New Jersey, this was no ordinary leadership seminar. They were being imbued with the values of the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta, by its most venerable proponent, Swami Parthasarathy. ...

On the syllabus at Harvard, Kellogg, Wharton and Ross business and management schools is the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s most sacred texts. ....

He began studying the Bhagavad Gita, and has spent the past 50 years building a multimillion pound empire through explaining its practical benefits to wealthy corporations and executives.

He has recently returned to India from America where — in addition to the Young Presidents’ Organisation — he lectured students at Wharton Business School and executives at Lehman Brothers in Manhattan. His tours are booked well beyond next year, and will include Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia.

While traditional business teaching has used the language of war and conquest, Parthasarathy uses the Bhagavad Gita to urge his students to turn inwards, to develop what he calls the intellect, by which he means their own personal understanding of themselves and the world, and to develop their “concentration, consistency and co- operation”.

The technical folk do have their religious fads, but compared to such arrant nonsense, they are the very epitome of logic and reason.

If the Ivy League schools and Lehmann Brothers and other corporations believe this nonsense enough to enrich "guru" (gag!!) Parthasarthy by many millions of pounds, why should I get an MBA? Hmmm on the other hand, that is precisely the reason why I should get one?

If anyone reading this blog has an Ivy League MBA and/or works on the Street, could you please explain how such rackets work? I can't make any sense out of this. Any help appreciated.


Anonymous said...


As a rule of thumb i consider all such gurus akin to Snake-oil salesmen.

However in this particular case, the article goes on to say.

Parthasarathy, however, is sceptical about his new role as guru-in-chief to America Inc. “The business community has appreciated my line of approach. But nobody knows what I’m talking about, just bits and pieces. I’m saying they need to develop their intellect, not simply their intelligence, which is just knowledge from external sources, to help earn a living.

“Your intellect is your capacity to deal with the world, which is dormant in you. I ask people to think. People are doing business, but they don’t know why,” he said.

That to me sounds like a very reasoned approach. The article goes on to say that Parthasarathy himself is very sceptical of the current hype and i quote:

He is sceptical of the prospects of many of his business students benefiting from his teaching. “Not a single soul has understood. At Kellogg, nobody understood. They said it was inspiring. They think I will help them make more money. It’s hype,” he said..

Logical,reasonable and sceptical, not a bad approach i would say. Or have i completely missed your point.

Ravi said...


Just because Parthasarathy says "No one understands what I *really* teach" does not make his 'teachings' valid.

Anyway that wasn't my point. :-) I'll wait for more comments and to decide if my writing needes editing.

Nisha Pillai said...

So he lectured at Wharton, Ross and HBS. So what? I don't see:

1. Why this is putting you off MBAs. It's not like he's on the core curriculum at any of these schools. Or did I miss something?

2. What one instance of, as you say, "arrant nonsense" has to do with MBAs in general. To me, that's like saying you won't work in the tech industry again because [insert tech company] had all their employees attend a bhumi pooja (or pick your favorite example)?

Lastly, in my experience, it has not been your style to generalize based on one example (or a few). What happened?

Ravi said...

Hey Nisha,
Thanks for the comment.

a) if you read the articles I linked to You will find that (the author claims that) the Bhagavad Gita (which "gurur" Parthasarathy has apparently jazzed up for corporate consumption) is on the "syllabus" of Harvard etc. Whether "core" or not is not indicated.

b)This particular nonsense is about the *core activity* the company or school is engaged in. The tech company/bhoomi pooja analogy doesn't hold. The day the folks at MIT or Stanford or Google develop a pooja/Gita/Bible based development methodology for writing software, damn right I'll consider not working in the industry!

c)It is not just "one example". These kind of illogical theories seem to be taken seriously by a very large number of people.

I know a prof in the IIM who teaches "ethical management" based on such concepts as Sattva, Rajas and Tamas.(!) (for those readers unfamilair with these terms, they come from the Sankhya school of Philosophy and are extensively used in the Bhagavad Gita).

Her reply to a case study in a popular management magazine was so atrocious nd feebly argued that I wouldn't have had her teach a 3 year old!

anyway, I hope you'll focus on ***why*** such claptrap would be taught *at all* in the best schools/ companies? That is the point I can't understand. Is the idea something like "we don't really believe in this, but you should expland your mind" or something similair?

Also, notice that there was no mention of "generalizing from one (or a few" examples. I just said things like this make me wonder if my thinking is off base.

Anonymous said...

They should probably teach reiki and Feng shui as well.

Nested said...

This kind of thing does not surprise me in the least. Both the people running these programmes and entering them are usually from a privileged background where they have not really experienced the true difficulty of management - e.g. starting their own company or managing a restaurant. It's often a kind of rite that one goes through before entering an executive position at some large company. I really doubt that there is great value beyond networking in these programmes and it's no surprise that they would fall for all sorts of dopey stuff.

Anonymous said...

I am as mad as the next guy when it comes to middle-management-uselessness but for some reason, the author of this blog seems to go into a blind rage when it comes to all things management. It is kinda childish; it defiles 10 good posts of his for every blanket statement he makes. Sounds passive-aggressive to me.


Ravi said...

"blind rage"? "passive agressive" ?

tis easy to write a comment with a few labels like these, kinda harder to make a logical refutation :-).

All the harder, because the central point of the post is "paying some idiot big bucks to regurgitate the Bhagavad Gita as 'management theory' (if you actually read the Gita you'll notice it was never intended to be anything of the kind)
seems foolish."

If you have a counter point, pls explain?

There is no "rage" friend, just curiosity. Instead of ad hominem, try logic next time?

Ravi said...


You may have a point, but I am not sure if all managers/Ivy League MBAs are clueless.

I had a discussion recently with a good friend of mine (who is also an IL MBA) but we found it very very hard to pin down or agree on the exact value add oof something like "strategy consulting" by people who haven't run a business in their lives. I look forward to continuing that conversation sometime.

Joel has a
on the same phenomenon.

What prevents me from concluding something like "management is a con game" is the fact that I've seen and worked with some really bright managers, some of whom had IL MBAs.

Most of the good ones however wore their MBA's very lightly and frankly confess that most (but not all) of their courses are just time fillers and most (but not all) of "corprorate management" is a game "full of sound and fury".

Most people seem to treat an MBA course, not a something that teaches them something useful, but as a move up the ladder, an initiation rite into the guild. (I don't have a problem with this, as long as people don't fool themselves).

(just freewheeling here)
A similair situation existed in Medieval Europe. A lot of people became priests, because that was one of the routes to worldly power and not because they had a calling to serve the poor or follow the path of Jesus. This is NOT to say that all priests were charlatans, but a large majority were just playing the game, to get a secure source of food and shelter and be part of the heirarchy of power. Again nothing wrong in that, as long as they were clear what they were doing. The problem occurs when *other people* treat them as "holy" and they start believing it!

So maybe you are right after all :-). I've been curious about this phenomenon for a long time now.

Hence the request for clarification at the end of my post.
I have no fixed opinion on this matter (see my post on "grey thinking") and would be delighted to hear from anyone who has a genuine insight.

Chetana said...

Check http://www.blonnet.com/2002/05/07/stories/2002050700020900.htm

I think I know why most people think that such theories as the one referenced in the blog are gimmick-ey.

It is the fundamental conflict between intuition and intellect.

Scientific theory based on rationalism is the seat of intellect as understood by modernism. Ancient spiritual wisdom transcends such humanistic (as in humanism as a philosophy)approach to wisdom.

It is hard for any teacher to articulate abstract spiritual theory in scientific language. Not solely because the teacher has not achieved maturity in the intuitive approach to wisdom and knowledge; thereby not having matured in the grasp of knowledge itself. It is even harder for the mind rooted in rationalism to pan over to the other side.

Have you ever had a chance to read Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan's lecture "Intuition and Intellect" ?

You will probably debunk everything I have said here but may appreciate it if you read that essay.

P.S. Why can't I shake off the feeling that you cannot take a counter viewpoint to your posts,Ravi? Yeah, one can argue all they want about how poorly the counterpoint has been crafted but come on, 9 times out of 10, the counterpoint is discernable.

Logic and rationale are rather low-level tools of understanding :-)

Chetana said...

p.p.s. You should enable the display of comments in a separate pop-up window. Much easier that way.

Ravi said...

a "counterpoint" being "discernable" is not enough to make it valid. The two concepts are orthogonal.

"You are wrong because the moon is made of green cheese" could be a "counter point" to anything anyone says. It is very clear, but it isn't valid.

"It is hard for any teacher to articulate abstract spiritual theory in scientific language. Not solely because the teacher has not achieved maturity in the intuitive approach to wisdom and knowledge; thereby not having matured in the grasp of knowledge itself. It is even harder for the mind rooted in rationalism to pan over to the other side."

This is the "mystical" argument. ie. " I know I am right and I can't convince you because what I say is beyond your puny human minds , but you have to believe what I say anyway".

yeah right I have to believe whatevrr any random person says because he himself claims it is beyond logic?

(Digressing a bit)
And anyway the very best spiritual teachers (the Buddha, jesus Christ, Krishna) all expressed themselves very simply. (If you think the Bhagavad Gita is complicated, you should read it in the original sanskrit -- (I did) --rather than depend on another's interpretation whether Radahkrishnan's or anyone else and make up your own mind. Most translations of the Gita are so overloaded with pseudo religious mumbo jumbo they often end up expressing the very opposite of what a plain reading tells you.

(back to the main thread)

No reasonable human being will accept someting becaus ethe proponent claims his knowledge is "beyoond rationality" This leads to cult behaviour not spirituality. In any case it has no place in management.

Here is a sample "mystic" argument "I want you to mediate on Green Cheese at 3 o clock in the morning everyday before setting out to manage your company the mystic power thus gained will make you a superior manager". sorry you can't ask for the rationale because this is a principle byond rationality.


Whenever anyone says something like this in support of an argument, I immediately flip the bozo bit.

if someone has one of the "mystical and beyond rationality" 'truths' in their posession, they should keep it to themselves and other fellow "mystic" beings and don't bother talking to us "disbelievers" who are convinced only by logic or proof :-).

As to
"Why can't I shake off the feeling that .. "
I have absolutely no clue :-) Your feelings are beyond my power of perception or influence :-).

As I said very clearly in a comment above I have no "stand" or "point" except that paying charlatans highly to spout mumbo jumbo to managers *seems* funny to me. I am genuinely interested in the psychology and sociology of this phenomenon. There is some kind of rationale people use to justify this.

I am even willing to be persuaded that "guru" parthasarathy is some kind of management genius, but not by appeals to "mystic truths are not rational".

PS: I don't agree with much of what Dr Radhakrishnan says. So what? I don't care *who* says something only how much it makes sense.

Ravi said...

I have an "anonymous" comment, *claiming to be one of the posters above* reacting in a fairly unreasonable way (picking two words out of a long post).

If anyone doesn't see their comments, please use the id you originally used (vs anonymous) and I'll post your comment. I just want to avoid "anonymii" pretending to be someone they are not.


Ravi said...

I tried the "popup" idea for a while but some people didn't like it. I personally find it easier to read it in one pagethan asa popup, but if enough people request the feature, I have no issues. I wish I could have reader specific preference settings.

Nested said...

In truth, I can think of a number of valuable things one could learn from an mba programme. The thing I would pay the most attention to is case studies. It would be worthwhile to know what kinds of initiatives were undertaken by various companies and how they appeared to work out. Other areas would include economics, finance and accounting, depending on what one's experience prior to the mba might have been. There is probably some interesting research around the psychology of people in organizations which would be of interest to me if I were pursuing an mba. Learning about how to acquire another company or how to defend against a hostile takeover attempt would be another item of interest. I guess my point is that I'm sure there really are some interesting things to get out of an mba, but of its generally abstract nature, I imagine that there is a great deal of room for hocus pocus too, just as there is is other areas, software certainly high among them.

Ravi said...

I agree. If I ever go through an MBA I'd focus on the case studies( though their "interpretation" by people who know nothing of business would probably be treated as another ritual) and the "hard" areas like finance.