In the 15th episode of The Mindful Initiative podcast, host Nitesh Batra talks to Professor Mahadevan. He is a currently a Professor in Production and Operations Management at Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore. Professor Mahadevan’s research interests include researching the possibility of using ancient Indian wisdom to address contemporary concerns, spirituality in the work place, and management paradigms from Bhagavad Gita. A true embodiment of a modern day scholar, Prof. Mahadevan brings a perfect balance to understanding India’s glorious past and it’s value and application in today’s world. He is a profound thinker, educationist and a pioneer in the application of ancient Indian wisdom to modern day education, Prof. Mahadevan in this conversation, fires up the intellect and imagination of listeners, puts forth a few insights that provoke us to think differently and deeply on how we can create a better society and gift the next generation with principles and wisdom of our scriptures. He delights listeners by diving into various Chapters of the Bhagvad Gita, cross referencing & pulling out apt, powerful shlokas /quotes that provide immediate contexts for inspirations, lessons in leadership and management or very simple, basic truths and tenets of life.
Show Transcription >>
Nitesh Batra: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Mindful Initiative podcast. Today we are very, very fortunate to have amongst us Professor Mahadevan who is a Professor of Operations Management at IIM Bangalore. He is a Sanskrit and Vedantic scholar and was the Founder, Vice Chancellor of Chinmaya Vishwa Vidyapeeth, which is a University for Sanskrit and Applied Indian knowledge and Tradition.
Prof. Mahadevan: That person who is equipped with the ability to handle the dualities of life, the ability to handle this apparatus called mind, can only find something happening in a very fruitful way in the long run.
Prof. Mahadevan: So we need education systems which help the youngsters understand; while we need to make a living, we need to balance it with our passion then, that life would be a life, which is very interesting.
Nitesh Batra: Welcome Prof. Mahadevan.
Prof. Mahadevan: Thank you.
Nitesh Batra: So most of the interviews that I start , I start with the very beginning, which starts with the upbringing of the person. So if you can tell us a little bit about your upbringing and if spirituality had a place in your upbringing.
Prof. Mahadevan: I was born in a, I would say a village, not a very small village, but certainly a village. Somewhere down south in Tamil Nadu, border of Kerala. I think that partly explains most of the upbringing because I grew there for the first 11 years. Then I set out to slightly bigger cities and so on. So, in some ways I think that sort of an environment itself added in its own ways into the so-called spirituality, which is part of mind. But in a very formal sense, it is only when I went for my college education at College of Enineering in Guindy, Chennai that my tryst with Spirituality began at the age of 17. I had a very interesting Oriya friend whom I used to teach Production Engineering. He would teach me spirituality. So, I think that’s where the seeds were laid. Then as I went to IIT Madras, I did my Master’s and Ph.D. While those things were happening, there was a parallel stream of spirituality. I found some good masters in Chennai. I used to go to them, and I used to learn what ever Vedanta that I wanted to. Of course, I started learning Sanskrit also as I was doing Ph.D. My introduction to Sanskrit was very little, but I think all these started growing in the last 20-30 years. It has grown as much as what it is today. which seems to have taken me on this path.
Nitesh Batra: Well, thank you. That was a good introduction and it’s a good way to get into some of the burning questions that I have for you. I don’t think there is anyone in India or I can very easily say in the world, who is an expert in Bhagavad Gita and its application in leadership and management like you, today. And your journey began for spirituality, not just in your childhood but at a little later age. And in your previous talks, in your interviews, you have talked about that we need Bhagavad Gita more today than any time in previous history. Can you tell us why that is the case?
Prof. Mahadevan: Okay. See, the central theme in Bhagavad Gita. Just look at it. Here is a great leader who just refuses to fight, and he has all good reasons not to fight. Chapter 1 of Bhagvad Gita so beautifully brings it out and something happens between him and Krishna. Some conversation happens and at the end of the conversation, this warrior who wanted to run away from the battlefield, comes back to the center of action. I think life is all about being part of the society, being part of activities. Nobody can –even in our scriptures, in our Vedantic texts also, you will find even a Yogi cannot run away from activity. His mental disposition may be different. Therefore, this is a text which created a context. It inspired a person who thought he should run away from action and brought him back to the centerpiece of an arguably a tough action.
Prof. Mahadevan: Therefore, there must be something very, very interesting for every one of us. This was the starting point for me, and I think I’m very convinced now. Bhagavad Gita is all about action, not about “no action”. It’s all about meaningfully contributing to the society and in the process of doing it, also evolving oneself to greater states of oneself. That’s where I think Bhagavad Gita is very, very important today. Because we have reached a situation today—if I can quote Adi Shankaracharya’s Bhashya–Adi Shankaracharya wrote a wonderful Bahshya. Bhagavad Gita’s popularity today was because of him. He only wrote the first Bhashya. He wrote a 10 – line preamble to it and in the first line He says, the stability of the jagat, critically rest on pravritti and nivritti. And he said there is a balancing required between the two. Today, we are going a little out of balance. So, all the more reason we need Bhagavad Gita.
Nitesh Batra: And that’s absolutely right. There is an imbalance that’s being created in the society and the setting of Bhagavad Gita is— if you let me talk about the setting of Bhagvad Gita–it is in a war field where Arjuna and Krishna, facing the Kauravas. And the first Shloka of Bhagavad Gita says, “Dharmakshetre, Kurukshtre”– that the battle is happening in our minds and depending on whose commentary you read. Now we talk about war a lot because it’s related to Bhagvad Gita and war in my view is very extreme of most cases. And is there a way that we can still talk about Bhagavad Gita and be a little bit more mellow? Because when we talk about the extremes and wars, it has started percolating in our society. When you look at our education system, when you look at our roads, when you look at most things in businesses, everything is fought like the Art of War, like what Sun Tzu did and Bhagvad Gita. Those are the examples that are given and if we take them as the foundation or the basis, it results in mental instability in many cases, right? So how do we find that balance if what we are learning from is that war?
Prof. Mahadevan: Very good question because I think, this misconception must be clarified. Bhagavad Gita has 700 shlokas. If you leave chapter one, which has 47 shlokas in which Arjuna was trying to say why he doesn’t want to fight a war and so on. If we take it out, you have 653 Shlokas. If I’m right, the word war must have come only three times. So, first of all, the context for the conversation was war. The subject matter of discussion had nothing to do with war. So, I want to clarify this misconception. And how do you know that? That’s why I’m saying in 653 shlokas, you’ll never find a reference to a war at all. There is a 38th shloka in Chapter 2 in which he talks about war, but in a very different way. So, I think it’s only three or four times he has spoken about war.
Prof. Mahadevan: Therefore, this idea that Bhagavad Gita, the insights of Bhagavad Gita comes only out of our understanding of a setting of war is not correct. That was just a starter. I think it was only an excuse to start this whole conversation, between Arjuna and Krishna. There are phenomenally wonderful things about life which are being spoken about because the problem of Arjuna was not war. The problem of Arjuna was handling himself. So, the subject matter, although it started with not fighting war and so on, the entire discussion has nothing to do with war. Therefore, I think we should take this out of our mind.
Nitesh Batra: Thank you. That’s a good way for people who just take that as the foundation that you know when we are in situations that cannot be handled, this is where we apply these things. Now let’s come to our day to day living where the application is more required and more needed. And you’ve talked in depth in the past about many problems that we face when people work, whether it’s stress, which is induced because of balancing of life within work and family, whether it’s something which is unrelated to people as well. And you talk about how the lessons from Bhagavad Gita can help us overlook them and create some sort of a stability in our life and bring calm and peace. So, we are able to do those things. Can you share a little bit, a bit more light on that for us please?
Prof. Mahadevan: Yes. First one. In fact, Bhagavad Gita is full of such ideas as you have mentioned. Let’s take the first idea, which came as soon as Krishna started speaking. In fact, to put things in perspective, whole of Chapter 1, the 11 shlokas in Chapter 2 are all simply what Arjuna was saying. Krishna spoke from that 11th Shloka in Chapter 2. Look at the third shloka from there. 14th shloka– he introduces a beautiful concept, called “titiksha”. He introduces a very, very important concept for life. He says, as long as we are in touch with outside world through our sensory organs, he says, seetoshna, sukha-dukha –it will blow hot and cold. It will sometimes be good—Sukha. Sometimes will be dukkha. Pleasure and pain.
Prof. Mahadevan: So, he introduces this concept very early in Bhagavad Gita and he says, life is a roller coaster ride. This is a very important principle for us today. Of course, we all aspire to be happy, we aspire to do things so that good results come to us. But by merely aspiring to be only happy and only good things happening, we may not be in a position to handle if something else happens. I think a very important life principle is while aspiring for good things, our ability to prepare ourselves to take the pluses and minuses of life. So, this is called “titiksha”. He introduces this concept at 40 places in Bhagavad Gita. Again, and again, he talks about it. This is one example. I’ll give you another example. Chapter 6 of Bhagavad Gita is all about Dhyana Yoga. There’s a beautiful shloka, 6th shloka in Chapter 6. He says, mind, you lift yourself. You have to use your vehicle, or an apparatus called mind. It all depends on how you use it. He says, “aatmyev bandhuh”. If you know how to handle your mind, the mind can be your friend. If you don’t know how to handle your mind, the mind can be your enemy. So, these are very– of course I’ve just quoted one shloka. In both the occasions. There’s so much of explanation behind it in the shlokas that follow. In other words, there are lots of such principles that we need in life because as we step out into the world of activity, that person who is equipped with ability to handle the dualities of life, ability to handle this apparatus called mind, can only find something happening in a very fruitful way in the long run. So, Gita is about all that. There are many examples. I just quoted a couple of them.
Nitesh Batra: I think that brings me to something which is very close to me. We look at the world in ways that the problems of the world spur up and we see this is the issue. What according to you, is happening, right and good in today’s world that we can build on, so that we have a better future, not just for the next generation, but many generations after? And the reason why I asked that question is because everywhere we go, or most places where we go, we hear lot of negatives, you know, whether it’s the news, whether it’s the internet, whether it’s our colleagues. So, I want to focus on the positives because there is so much good also happening in the world and I want to know your opinion about it.
Prof. Mahadevan: Absolutely. I think, the media for reasons known to them and for maybe certain reasons, it might be very convenient for them to bring issues, which generate sort of an urgency. So, a lot of negative ideas are being brought out, but I firmly believe that enough good things are happening. There are enormous amount of inspiring things happening around us. So therefore, then what is the issue here? The issue is a matter of perspective. Gita also talks about it. It’s a matter of perspective. I find there are at least two or three different types of people. There’s one set of people who look and hear about these negative things and say, oh, what is happening? The world has become much poorer place and so on. They are according to me, cynical. But everybody sees that. All the three see it. But the first person takes a view, “oh, world has become not a really something good to live” and all that. So that’s a cynical attitude. There’s a second person whom if I have to use a nearest definition, a Karma Yogi. What does he or she do?
Prof. Mahadevan: He or she looks at all this because everybody at it. It all you know is in the eye of the beholder. The training of Gita will change them. And what does this person do? This person, will say, all this happens, but as a true karma yogi, what do I do? There are situations, every moment, situations unfold in life for every one of us. The critical question is how do you react to those situations? So, a Karma Yogi says, here is a situation. This situation demand a certain kind of response and that response to the best of my capability, I will be able to do the best of my capability. And I will spontaneously react to that situation. A person who leads life like that, while he or she continues to see a lot of these negative things, at the end of the day, he, at the end of every work day or the end of every day, we spend, this person goes back with a great sense of satisfaction. He gets a good night’s sleep. I think that’s very important. I think negative issues do happen, but there are enough number of inspiring things that are happening around us. So the kind of training, the kind of eye that we have, the kind of perspective you develop can make all the difference and I think that’s what some of these scriptures also train us when we introspect a little bit more on what they are talking about.
Nitesh Batra: I think that good night’s sleep is the most important thing and if you’re able to sleep without even thinking that there’s anything wrong that has been done. I think when you wake up the next morning, you will be charged to get moving again and I think that charging things makes me think about the younger generation. People who are going to college and makes me think about the Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth which you are the Founder & Vice Chancellor of.
Nitesh Batra: Now, you have talked about this also that in India we are creating a lot of quantity of people who are going to higher education, but the quality is lacking. And there is not one issue that I can bring up that you know that we can fix this or that. But what are some of the things according to you that we can start working towards or some action has already started and maybe you can talk about your involvement with Vishwavidyapeeth as well. What are some of the things that we can do so that we start working on quantity as well as quality?
Prof. Mahadevan: Yes. I think the higher education space in this country suffers from some of the issues that you are talking about. See, the critical issue lies here. Partly because we want to grow faster as an economy. We wanted to find more jobs and so on. I’m sure these are some of the reasons. Our higher education today in this country has created institutions which are like a cookie cutter. Everybody has to become an Engineer. Everybody after that has to become an MBA and maybe you know, get into a management job and so on. This is fundamentally an antithesis to the Indian thinking, which says, let 1000 flowers blossom. What does that mean? It comes from our psychological construct, which came from Sankhya Yoga that every one of us have a Prakriti Vishesha. Each one of us is very unique. Indian prescription is: “Not all are same, but all are unique”. All are same has a different meaning. All are unique has a different meaning.
Prof. Mahadevan: So, the question now is if each one of us has something unique in us, it’s only that education which is able to; number one, recognize that. Number two, show the mirror to the student and say, Hey, this is some of the nice things about you which you perhaps have not thought about. And thirdly, create an ambience, a possibility in which you can actually further that ideas. I must tell you the founding of the Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth. Prior to that, I had a very striking experience. One day, I went to my one of my relatives’ house. There was a huge painting. 9 feet by 12 feet of Goddess Sharada which was being done. It was about 80% complete. So beautiful. So, I asked my relative, “who is the artist? So beautiful!” He smiled at me and said, “this is a nine-month-old work. Already, nine months down. The person who is painting, this is a software engineer in Infosys.
Prof. Mahadevan: He comes at seven o’clock every evening and works on this til 11 o’clock in the night and then he goes home. Then I smiled at him back and I told him it is this painting which keeps his Infosys job. It is not the Infosys job, which is keeping the painting. The point I’m trying to make is, people must know their passion, people must nurture their passion. Of course, we need a living. So, the central theme in Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth was, we want to give inputs for living, which other universities are doing. We also wanted to give inputs for life. And what I mean by inputs for life helps the students understand what their passions are, grow it a little bit so that this stress, burnout -all that can be internally handled with the built-in mechanism. So, this boy comes and does painting for three hours.
Prof. Mahadevan: All his problems in office is gone. He has a good night’s sleep. Next day he is a bundle of energy. So, we need education systems which help the youngsters understand, while we need to make a living, we need to balance it with our passion. Then that life will be a life, which is very interesting. So, the way we built our courses, the way we designed our curricular– sort of balance between inputs for living and inputs for life. I think that’s how we must change our education. I am sure it will happen. And we are saying liberal arts. I’m saying let us get liberating science. Because Vishnu Purana says, “Education must liberate an individual and bring the best out of them.” I think we will be on our way. it may take a little time; we will do it.
Prof. Mahadevan: And that’s how we should address some of the issues that our youngsters are going through. It is high time we look at this cookie cutter business because that can provide it only quantity but not quality. We need to work on both.
Nitesh Batra: That’s absolutely correct and lovely, lovely thoughts about that. And I think that takes me a little bit further back in your life. You have a lovely family you have a daughter who is doing her Ph. D and I have happened to meet her and Mrs. Mahadevan as well. And I think the kind of values that you have, you and Mrs. Madhavan have, really inculcated in her are an example for many, many of us. We have a very young daughter as well. And I have spoken to you and Mrs. Mahadevan about some of the things that we could do, and we were just talking about the college education system, but all this starts to happen much earlier in life.
Nitesh Batra: And it’s something that young parents should start noting and start making a difference in their children’s life, not just their life. So, what are some of the things that, or some of the suggestions or thoughts that you may have for young parents or some people who have friends or families who have young kids in them, the kind of value system that they should bring in so they live a more moralistic life.
Prof. Mahadevan: This is again a very, very important issue. I have been talking about it at times and good that you brought it also to the discussion here in. In Bhagvad Gita Chapter 3, there is a beautiful shloka. It talks about leadership, of course. To me, this shloka eminently applies to young parents with a child, which is just growing up. Whatever little I have understood, I think between the age of 2 and 6, most of the values of the child are set. Even before they step into the world of morality and ethical challenges and so on. And how does it happen? I think that child very, very intensely watches. Just because the child doesn’t have the vocabulary to speak or it even sets out to say something, we cannot make an assumption. It has not made up its mind. It has not understood what life is. I think the two parents, I keep saying this, the best part of bringing a next generation of family is when the child is between the age of 2 and 6. That’s the time that the two parents can enact minute by minute. This perfection of life that is possible by way of values. The way they speak –I’ve seen I go for some family gatherings, social gatherings, family functions. A two, three-year-old child uses a certain kind of bad words and very soon I find the mother or the father is actually doing it. These are very deep things which get ingrained in the child. So, I think the suggestion is very simple. For the4 years in our life per child, if we can enact to them that this is what is the way to live, we have invested for a lifetime. Very comfortably, we can let the child go. We’ll be absolutely assured that a child will be full of values and morals and that we need to. I think the parents play a phenomenal role. Now today in a situation of double income group, families and so on we need to think how to do that. We cannot ignore it. We cannot push it under the carpet. We should find a way of inspiring our kid as it grows. We have invested for a generation.
Nitesh Batra: I think that inspiration, takes the central theme of the next question that I’m going to ask. That in India, one of the problems that I feel that we face is existence of role models. And we consider people who are very high up as role models, but the role models at every step and stage that I feel that people should look up to and because we are so divided as a society in terms of socioeconomic places, how do we start getting these people who are doing some amazing things to be more of role models and show out to the world? You know that they are doing good. And it’s not that good is not happening. But people to look up to them as well. Not, just look up at the top. Because to climb up to that moralistic ladder, there are stages. So, if you keep looking at the top, we lose sense of it. So I would love your insights on that.
Prof. Mahadevan: First of all, I agree with you that we need lot more role models. But I also want to clarify a few things. A child, which starts at the age of 2 to a grownup adult–I don’t know up to what age. At every stage of our life, we have role models. There’s no way of taking it out. First we have to recognize that. Therefore the question is, whether we make a conscious choice or not, it becomes inevitable that for every individual there is a certain role model. So first of all, it is a very individualistic preference. So therefore, the only thing that we can do is to put in the front of an individual, possibly a large set of possible role models. Depending upon the value system, the kind of value congregation that has built into my psychology, that particular individual will actually get attracted to a certain role model.
Prof. Mahadevan: So I think while it doesn’t take away the need to not look at role models, it only accentuates the problem. It emphasizes the need that we don’t have to look for that role model who is at that highest level, which of course at a certain level we might aspire to be. I think we must be able to show a number of role models. For a two year old child and five year old child and a mother and a school teacher. When this child goes to the 1st standard, maybe a great role model. Whether we know it or not it may happen. So I think that must be a conscious effort to bring it in front of our growing younger generation. The more we bring a variety of role models, the greater is the propensity that there is a value alignment and an inspiration that happens..
Prof. Mahadevan: Greater is the possibility that there is a small bit of a switch over that happens from one type of role model to another type of a role model which are all very good. Today, what is happening is that media is bringing a few handful of celebrities and seem to suggest they are the only role models, very implicitly it is suggested. It is not explicitly suggested. When there is a festival a 16 year old glamorous looking actor–she should come and bless all of us for a festival. I mean implicitly we are saying these are the people who matter in our life. I think while media does its role, I think as citizens, as members of the family, as members of the society, we must be able to constantly bring more and more role models but must understand at the end of the day that the individuals are going to get aligned to a certain role model.
Prof. Mahadevan: So we work on the values, bring a variety of role models, then the right role models, are aligned over time and then they keep moving on. That’s how perhaps it should happen.
Nitesh Batra: Thank you so much. I know we’re getting towards the end of our discussion, end of our time here. So before we end, I like to ask a few– sort of a rapid fire questions. If you’re okay answering them and please do– you’re more than welcome to pass them. But I would appreciate if you were to answer them.
Prof. Mahadevan: Let me try.
Nitesh Batra: Yes. So, the first question is if there was one place in world where you would travel to, what would that place be?
Prof. Mahadevan: It’ll be my native place, my native.
Nitesh Batra: What is the name of the native place?
Prof. Mahadevan: This is Madurai.
Nitesh Batra: One childhood memory that sparks joy in your life.
Prof. Mahadevan: The days in our village when we used to celebrate Krishna Janmashtami. We had all principles of management within us, between a five year old and eight year old,.
Nitesh Batra: What does being mindful mean to you?
Prof. Mahadevan: Mindful means to me as a state of mind, which is always enriching, which is very enthusiastic, which is devoid of stress, which is, all the time looking forward to be in the present, not in the future or in the past.
Nitesh Batra: If you happen to watch movies, what if you can think of, which would be your favorite movie right now?
Prof. Mahadevan: I think I will pass that. I’m unable to imagine watching any movie now.
Nitesh Batra: Right. And any songs that you can think of, if not a movie that you really like?
Prof. Mahadevan: Well, MS Subbulakshmi’s–some of the songs have profoundly influenced me. Rajaji,the great political architect, actually made lyrics of a song which MS Subbulakshmi used to sing. It is called “Kurai ondrum illai” which means there is nothing to feel dissatisfied in life. That’s a wonderful song which comes to my mind all the time.
Nitesh Batra: Can you hum a few lines from it?
Prof. Mahadevan: (Prof Mahadevan sings…)
Nitesh Batra: Beautiful. What does that mean?
Prof. Mahadevan: It looks at Lord Krishna and says, oh Lord Krishna, there’s nothing about which I should be dissatisfied in life. Life is not something which has to be dissatisfied. Life is fullness for me.
Nitesh Batra: Beautiful. That’s a great way to end our discussion and our conversation. Thank you. Thank you so much Professor Mahadevan for, for being on our show, enriching our memories and just helping us think more deeply about what we are doing and how we can be better citizens to the society. Thank you so much for being here.
Prof. Mahadevan: Thank you Nitesh. I really enjoyed this conversation that we had during the last half an hour or so. Thank you.
Nitesh Batra: Thank you so much everyone for listening and tuning into our show. Please remember to rate us on iTunes or Google or wherever you listen to your podcast. Thank you so much.
Editing: Juan Pablo Velasquez Luna
Transcription: Gita Venkat
Research: Pranjali Maneriker