HANDLING UNCERTAINITIES OF LIFE

As I navigate the 7th decade of my life, living in a time when the fragility of life is becoming so evident, I am left thinking on how to deal with something that is the most certain in life but the most uncertain in timing. There is a lesser-known story, about this dilemma, from Mahabharat which has left a deep lasting impact on me.

STORY OF YUDHISHTIR AND BHIM

After end of the great war of Mahabharat, Yudhistir was crowned as the King of Hastinapur. Once, he was having a meeting with his ministers. Since the subject of discussion was serious, he did not want the meeting to be disturbed by anyone. He, therefore, asked the guards to direct anyone (who wanted to meet the King) to his younger brother Bhim, who was authorized to decide whether the person should be allowed to go in or not.

After some time, an old and seemingly poor person came to the gates of the palace and requested guards to allow him in, to meet the King. The guard brought him to Bhim. When Bhim asked him the purpose of his coming, the old man replied, “Sir, I am a poor priest. My daughter’s marriage is fixed for next week. I do not have enough money for the expenses of the marriage function. Therefore, I have come to request our great King for some monetary help.” Bhim realised that this was not an urgent enough cause to disturb the meeting. But after thinking for a while, he allowed the poor priest to go into the meeting room.

After a few moments, the priest came out of the meeting room. He appeared to be happy. He told Bhim, “Sir, the King listened to my request carefully and then, told me to come tomorrow at the same time when he will give me whatever help I want.” Bhim requested him to wait for some time near the palace gate. Now Bhim called the Army Chief and ordered, “Go and ask all soldiers to start beating drums and shouting slogans in praise of our King.” Chief looked perplexed by this sudden and unprovoked order but Bhim sternly asked him to follow his instructions.

Within a few minutes, the palace was filled with deafening roars and sounds of drumbeats. Yudhistir also heard the noise and came out of his meeting room. He asked the Army Chief why all the soldiers were shouting. The Chief meekly pointed towards Bhim.

Bhim bowed to Yudhistir and said, “Sir, indeed, this is being done on my orders. I wanted all of us to rejoice and celebrate your unparalleled great victory, which is unique in the history of mankind”. Yudhistir, now little annoyed, asked, “I do not understand this. Which victory are you talking about”?

Bhim smiled and said, “Sir, let me explain. We all know two absolute truths of life. First is that you are known in the world as Dharmraj, someone who will always speak nothing but absolute truth. Second fact is that, in this mortal world, every living being has to die and no one has ever been able to win over his Kaal (Death) even for a second.”

Yudhistir was now losing his patience, “Bhim, please do not talk in riddles. Please tell me clearly what you want to say”

Bhim then explained, “Sir, you have asked that poor priest to come tomorrow, when you will give him whatever he wants. Since, your word is always a truth, this means you are sure that for at least next 24 hours, Kaal (Death) cannot touch you. Now you tell me – is there any one on this earth ever who has won over Kaal, and that too for 24 hours? This is your unparalleled, unprecedented and unique achievement on this earth and hence we are celebrating.”

It was a big lesson for Yudhistir. He immediately called for that poor priest and gave him whatever he wanted.

LEARNING FOR ME

I am sure, we all very well know the core elements of this story (certainty of death and uncertainty of its timing) at the intellectual level. Still, the way it is presented, it hit me hard when I read it for the first time.

My purpose of disseminating this story is not to create a sense of anxiety and hopelessness. If we look positively, it gives us a clear message –

Plan and hope for the best, yet, at every moment be prepared for the worst.”

Let me share some of my experiences and changes in my behaviour, after reading and grasping the message of this story:

  • I have become more tolerant towards people, their differing views, and behaviours
  • I am now more conscious of the need to remain connected with those for whom I care. As and when a thought occurs that I have not talked to a friend for some time, I immediately try to call him and not leave it for (uncertain)tomorrow.
  • Same is true for all members of immediate and even extended family. (Some of you may be surprised that I am in regular touch with even third level of my cousins and their families). Almost religiously, I connect with each family member, especially my seniors, frequently.
  • If I have hurt or harmed someone, I immediately try to talk to him and apologise, not leaving it for some other day.
  • Similarly, if I have a grudge against someone (who may have hurt or harmed me), as soon as possible, I try to forgive, call him, and try to mend relations.
  • Whenever a thought of doing a good deed (like making an offering to a good cause) crosses my mind, I try to act on it immediately. In my mind, I am in “Debt” to that person or organization from the time the thought occurred, to the time I acted on it. And I do not want to leave this world in “Debt” to someone (as far as possible).
  •  Similarly, I avoid buying anything on credit even from a known shop. Once, while picking up a pan (betel leaf) from a regular shop, I had only a hundred rupees currency note, but the shopkeeper did not have enough change to give back to me. Since I was a regular customer, he suggested that I can pay to him on my next visit. But I insisted that he keep the 100 Rupees note and give me change when I visit him next. Once again, my thought process was same – I do not want to be in debt at any time.
  • I have become very conscious that my wife and children should always (once again the same thought process of being prepared for the worst at any moment), be fully informed of all my monetary transactions, assets in real time. A proper record of all assets is clearly made, updated regularly and is accessible to each of my dependents so that no one is left running from pillar to post for the administrative work post death. Almost all investments are in joint names with clear nomination.
  • In my personal view, handling immovable property is one of the most difficult projects for the successors. It is time consuming, needs voluminous documentation and a lengthy interaction with our notoriously slow bureaucracy and judiciary. It is also a leading cause of conflicts between siblings. Therefore, I have disposed of all properties except the house I am living in.

Please, even for a moment, do not think that I have become an ideal person and am trying to impress everyone with (or boasting about) my planning.

Far from it, I am only trying to take a few steps in the direction of leaving as little a mess as possible whenever that unknown and unseen but certain moment comes. Like the true and exact value of the constant “Pi” can never be determined fully, but, for our everyday life we use a reasonable approximation ( in Calculus, a variable tends towards a value but can never reach it); no one can ever be fully prepared but each of us can make our efforts in that direction.

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Revenge – a Destructive Emotion

Of all the negative human emotions, revenge is one of the most destructive one. Humans get blinded by the burning desire to take revenge – in the process both parties (one who wants to take revenge as well as the receiver of the vengeance) get harmed. Most of us do not consciously realise that revenge is a lose – lose game. A lesser known story from Mahabharat illustrates this nicely.

Draupadi and Krishna

After the end of the disastrous war called Mahabharat, the Pandavas were the winners. But the cost of this victory was colossal. It meant death of millions of soldiers from both sides. It also meant a near annihilation of the Kauravas. A pall of gloom enveloped magnificent and imposing palaces where, mostly ladies, mourned the death of their husbands, sons, brothers.  In such a sad atmosphere, Lord Krishna visited Draupadi, the newly installed queen of Hastinapur. As soon as she saw Krishna (her best friend), Draupadi lost all control on her emotions and cried bitterly. But instead of showing sympathy (as is expected of a real friend), Krishna asked Draupadi in a calm voice, “O Empress Draupadi, I hope you are now happy as your husbands have won the war and your vow has been fulfilled”. 

Krishna was indirectly reminding Draupadi of that fateful day when Yudhistir had put his kingdom, as well as his wife Draupadi on stake, in the game of dice against his warring cousins Kauravas. Unfortunately, Yudhistir lost the game. The eldest Kaurav prince Duryodhan then asked his brother Dushashan to bring Draupadi to the Court of Kauravas and humiliate her in front of her husbands as well as all the courtiers. Dushashan caught hold of Draupadi by her hair and dragged her to the court. Unable to bear this humiliation, Draupadi untied her hair, roared loudly, and took a public vow that she will tie her hair only after washing them with Dushashan’s blood taken from his heart. She wanted her untied hair to always remind her husbands, especially Yudhistir (who was mild mannered and was never in favour of any revenge), of her vow of revenge. She did not want this fire of revenge to become dim. Finally, during the war of Mahabharat between Kauravas and Pandavas, Bhim killed Dushashan, tore into his chest publicly, took a handful of blood from his heart and washed Draupadi’s hair with it in front of everyone. This was a ghastly sight which even Draupadi was unable to bear.

Krishna was now hinting to Draupadi that her vow of revenge was an important event leading to the war of Mahabharat, resulting in all round destruction. Even Draupadi lost all her five sons, besides many other near and dear ones in this war. 

Listening to Krishna, Draupadi wailed, “O Krishna, do you think only I was responsible for this war. Have you forgotten my humiliation and all our sufferings? After all, I have also lost my sons and many relatives in this war”. 

Krishna calmly replied, “Dear Draupadi, I have not forgotten anything. But, on that fateful day, if you had not taken such a public vow of this horrible revenge, we could have tried some other less painful ways of solving this conflict between Pandavas and Kauravas. But your vow of revenge sealed all our options and made this war inevitable.”  

In the end

Looking around, we find that the burning desire of revenge is the main factor behind unending gang wars, family discord, serial killings and many more gruesome crimes. How can a war end where each side retaliates to claim vengeance for the atrocities committed on them? And when the fire causes collateral damage, it only adds fuel with more people seeking revenge for the loss of near and dear ones. It is an endless spiral from which there can emerge no real winner. 

Even in personal life, vengeance can cause permanent fractures in relationships, complete obsession, leading to destruction of everything else in life. Vengeance, when finally achieved is like being marooned on a small island, with nothing to drink or eat.

Finally, we need to remember the famous saying of Gandhiji, “An eye for an eye will ultimately make the whole world blind”

Out of Box Thinking

Out of Box thinking is a well-known cliché in management jargon. It is used for innovative, nonlinear, disruptive original thinking beyond what appears to be  obvious. Such thinking has led to major inventions and innovations both in technologies and processes. For example, in most businesses, annual budgets used to be drawn up by extrapolating past figures – some increase here, some reduction there. Then someone came up with the concept called Zero Base Budgeting where budgets were drawn from scratch without consideration for the past figures. This was a revolutionary idea for its time. In this process, many inefficiencies hidden in past figures came to fore and the new budget was much more efficient. This, perhaps, was an early precursor to Out of Box thinking.

Nine Dot Problem

I was thinking about the origin of this term. In my view, it came from a classical and well known problem in creativity training. In this, you are required to join nine dots (as given below) using 4 straight lines, without lifting your pen from the paper.

Most of us assume implicitly, by looking at the visual,  that these nine dots represent a Box, and the solution has to be found within the boundaries of the Box (even though no such condition was specified). It is not possible to solve this problem unless we break free from this “imaginary” constraint.

Once we look for solution by going out of this imaginary box, it is possible to solve the problem as given below:

Perhaps this was the origin of this term “Thinking out of Box”

One of the finest examples of this concept is found in the mythological story of Hiranyakashipu and his son Prahlad.

The Story

Hiranyakashipu was a demon king. He hated Lord Vishnu (Earlier Lord Vishnu, in his incarnation as a wild boar, killed the brother of Hiranyakashipu who had “abducted” the Earth and tried to take it to nether regions).

So, he did a severe and tough penance to please Lord Bramha (the Creator). After a long penance, Lord Bramha was pleased and asked Hiranyakashipu to ask for a boon. The demon king asked for the boon of “immortality”. Bramha refused saying that it was against the eternal law of creation; everyone born on this earth is bound to die and hence could never be immortal. Then Hiranyakashipu thought and tried to play smart. He wanted a boon that he could not die or get killed  –

  • By any human or any beast
  • Inside the house or outside house
  • During day or night
  • On earth or in air
  • By Astra (weapons like arrow which are thrown) or Shastra (weapons like sword which are held in hand)

Bramha agreed to this suggestion and granted him the desired boon.

Having got this ‘conditional’ boon, Hiranyakashipu was confident that he was as good as immortal – no one would ever be able to kill him with all these conditions. This overconfidence made him very arrogant and cruel. He proclaimed ,”from now on, I am the God and no one should worship anyone other than me.”

His son Prahlad, somehow, became a great devotee of Lord Vishnu. This infuriated the arrogant Hiranyakashipu to no end. All his attempts to persuade Prahlad to stop worshipping any God other than himself were unsuccessful. He, then, tried many tricks to harm or kill Prahlad but he was always, somehow, saved  by Lord Vishnu. Finally, Hiranyakashipu came to his wits end. One day in a fit of irrepressible anger, he drew his sword to behead Prahlad. But Prahlad remained unperturbed and continued his prayers. He was sure that God would save him. In a rage, Hiranyakashipu asked, “Where is your God Vishnu now? How will he save you ?” Prahlad calmly replied, “ Father,  God is present everywhere in this creation.” Mockingly, the King asked him whether God was present in a nearby pillar also? When Prahlad replied in affirmative, the King tried to cut the pillar into two using his sword. Suddenly, there was a deafening sound and from the pillar appeared an incarnation of  Lord Vishnu called Narsimha (Nar means human and Simha means Lion). Narsimha’s lower body was that of a human whereas the upper body was that of a lion. With a loud roar, Narasimha grabbed the demon king, moved towards the gate of the palace, sat down on the threshold, and put the demon on his thighs. He proclaimed loudly, “O evil king, your death is in front of you. Look here – I am neither a human nor a beast. We are on the threshold – neither inside nor outside the house; you are on my thighs – neither on earth nor in air; this is evening time – neither day nor night; and now I will kill you with my bare claws – they are neither Astra nor Shastra. All the boons given to you by Bramha have been honoured”. Saying this, he tore into the Demon’s body and killed him.

To me, this story appears to be a brilliant example of Out of Box thinking – how all seemingly impossible conditions for killing Hiranyakashipu were met by innovative thinking.

And for the End

I was told that when Americans were preparing to send man to the moon, they wanted him to write a log of different events. But they also realized that the ink, in the pen, will not flow in the space due to the absence of gravity. So, they spent a lot of energy, time, and money in trying to create an ink which would work in zero gravity. Imagine their shock when a young son of a technician suggested  (out of box idea) that they could easily use a pencil instead. 

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In Search of Joy

This title may surprise some of my readers as the normal term used is “In search of happiness” (this is also the title of a book written by my good friend Prof Rakesh Sarin of UCLA). Let me explain my thought process behind this unusual title. 

Happiness (Hindi Translation Khushi)

In my definition, Happiness is what we experience when we get something. I had a delicious meal, and I felt happy. I bought a new car and I felt happy. Therefore, to me, happiness is something which is:

  • triggered by external factors, many of which are outside our control
  • is temporary (there is a concept in psychology called “Hedonic Treadmill” – the happiness of a new car may last a few months but then it becomes routine and hence we start seeking something else for happiness)
  • is comparative (a friend was very happy when he got a substantial annual bonus but next day, he was very unhappy when he found out that his colleague had received a higher bonus)

Therefore, search for happiness is never ending. I am not implying that we should stop looking for happiness (howsoever transient it may be).  It does give us at least a few moments of pleasure. In fact, I feel that we should enjoy every available opportunity of happiness, howsoever small it may be, (like a satisfying meal) rather than waiting for a big moment of happiness like buying a new expensive car.

Joy (Hindi translation Anand)

Joy is something which one experiences from within. It is a state of perfect harmony between you and your inner self.  You do not need external stimuli to be Joyful – it is long lasting. Swami Ramakrishna Paramhansa suffered from Cancer but it never impacted his happiness (inner Joy). Even today, I have live example of a classmate who has many health issues including a need for regular dialysis. But he never complains. Even in this condition, he happily travels (making advance arrangements with some hospital in the town of his visit for dialysis). Of course, for most of us, looking within is easier said than done. Let me illustrate it with the help of an old story.

Story of Sadhu and Thief

A learned and well-known Sadhu (Monk) lived in a hut in the forest near a town. He had many devotees who used to visit him, and he always helped them with wise advice. Once, the King visited the Sadhu and was extremely impressed with his vast knowledge, simple living and willingness to help. The King presented a large and rare diamond to Sadhu as a token of his gratitude. Sadhu was not keen on accepting such a valuable gift (which was also of no real use to him) but kept it on the King’s insistence. A clever thief wanted to steal the diamond. But never found an opportunity as the Sadhu was mostly surrounded by his devotees. So, the thief thought of a clever plan. He came to Sadhu as a poor orphan, told him a sob story and requested him for shelter. He said, “Sir, please accept me as your disciple. I will stay with you in this hut and help you with daily chores.” Sadhu thought for a while and then, allowed the disguised thief to stay there. 

Every night, when the Sadhu went to sleep, the thief would search all over the hut for the diamond but could not find it. During the day, when the hut was full of devotees, he could see the diamond in front of the statue of God but at night, he could never locate the diamond. This continued for a month. Since he was not getting enough sleep, the thief started to get worried for his health. Finally, one evening, when he was alone with the Sadhu, he confessed, “Sir, I am a thief who came here with the intention of stealing the diamond. Please forgive me. I now wish to leave.” Sadhu smiled and said, “I knew from day one who you were and what your intention was.”

The thief said, “Sir, you are a great soul who allowed me to stay here despite knowing that I was a thief. Being with you for so many days has cleansed my soul and conscience. From now on, I will work hard to earn my livelihood honestly and give up all my bad deeds.”

Sadhu was happy and blessed him for starting a new chapter in his life. Before he left, the thief (or rather ex-thief) requested the Sadhu to tell him the mystery of the diamond which disappeared at night. Sadhu laughed and said, “My dear, since I knew your intention, every evening, I used to put the diamond in the pocket of your shirt. I was sure that you will search for the diamond everywhere except your own shirt.”

Need to look inward

Like that thief, we also search for joy everywhere except in our own hearts. In fact, most of us are even afraid of looking within. Because, if we were to look within, we will find our heart largely occupied by negative thoughts – jealousy; worries and fear of unknown future; regrets of past actions; sense of hurt and need for revenge against so many people; unfulfilled desires of possessing and hoarding so many things; greed and so on. In all this crowd, poor joy gets no place.

Therefore, to bring Joy back in our lives; we have to gradually overcome these negative thoughts and allow joy to fill our hearts.

Once we are aware of our problems, it is possible to overcome these with mindfulness, philosophy of gratitude for what we have got (rather than sulking for what we did not get), empathy and helping others to bring smile on their faces, forgiveness for those who have hurt us, limiting our wants. In all this effort, practices like meditation can be of great help. We should try to live by the famous message of Sai Baba of Shirdi “Shraddha (unwavering faith) and Saburi (patience)”.

In the end

I will close this post with two small observations.

  1. Once, I heard a wise man saying, in pre mobile phone era, that we can talk to the whole world using telephone; but if we dial our own number on phone, it gives a “busy tone”. This metaphor illustrates how difficult it is to talk to oneself (looking inwards)
  2. The great philosopher Socrates lived in a hermitage away from the city. Every month, he would go to the main market of the city, visit each shop, examine all the goods and come back without buying anything. Once his disciple asked him the reason for this, seemingly, useless exercise. Socrates laughed and said, “I want to see how many new things mankind has made, without which I am living happily.”

HUMAN LIFE CYCLE

Most of us are familiar with the concept of Product Lifecycle. But today let’s talk about Human Lifecycle.

Traditional Ancient View

As per the ancient Indian scriptures, human life was divided into 4 equal phases of 25 years each, assuming a 100 year life span. They were:

  1. Bramhacharya: This is the first stage (from child to adult). It is the preparatory stage for the future life – mainly devoted to education and learning. 
  2. Grihastha: This is the stage of establishing a house and a family. Marriage, children, earning a livelihood, enjoying life are all part of this phase.
  3. Vanprastha: The third stage is when you gradually start withdrawing from active worldly life and increase your involvement in religious and social activities. By now children would be married and settled and hence the reins of running the household can be passed on to them. 
  4. Sanyas: This is the stage when you leave your home, move to the forest, and live the life of an ascetic. You get detached from all worldly activities and duties.  

While this is the classical view of Human Life Cycle, I remember a story, which I had heard from my mother, in my childhood, giving a new twist to this concept. I did not fully understand it then, but now, having completed 73 years of life, can appreciate it well.

The Story

When God created this earth and different creatures, he gave each creature an equal life span of 40 years. Man, who has always been greedy, went back to God and said, “O God, 40 years is too little a time for me to enjoy this life. Please increase it to 100 years.” To this, God replied, “I am sorry, I cannot increase your life span. But if some other creature wants a shorter life, it can donate its extra years to you.”

Man waited and gradually, other creatures appeared in front of God. Each one wanted its life to be reduced by 10 – 20 years as they considered 40 years to be too long to live in the forest. One by one, a Donkey, Monkey, Crow, Dog and Owl (in that order) donated a few years of theirs to Man, making his life a total of 100 years. Man was happy but he soon realized that the donated years retained the characteristics of that particular animal. Which meant his lifecycle was thus:

(Caveat: The word man in this story denotes both man and woman. Age for each stage is approximate only and may apply differently for each person. In many cases, these stages may also overlap.) 

  1. Stage I: First 40 years: This is the original life span given by God. During this period man lives and enjoys life to the fullest as a human being. This stage consists of exciting events of School, College, New Job, Courtship, Marriage, Early years of young children. All these give him an immensely satisfying and happy life, and his health is also at its peak.
  2. Stage II: 40 to 65 years: This is the age of Donkey. Man has to work hard to pull the cart of life. He must earn enough to bear heavy expenses on items like higher education for children, need to build a house and buy a car, expenses on marriages of children etc. Worries about fast approaching retired life and deterioration of health add their own pressures.
  3. Stage III: 65 to 75 years: This is the age of Monkey. Like the monkey jumping from one tree to another, Man also keeps moving from one child’s house to another in this stage of life. He helps his children in their household work. Keeps grandchildren entertained by making faces like a monkey.
  4. Stage IV: 75 to 85 years: This is the age of Crow. Now Man is too weak to jump from one branch to another. He, now, stays in one place. His main activity is to catch hold of a willing (or even unwilling) listener and keep telling him about “In our times…….”. Just like the caw, caw of a Crow, he keeps talking of good old days, laments the value system of the present generation, narrates (actual or imaginary) successes achieved by him during his active years.
  5. Stage V: 85 to 90 years: This is the age of Dog. Man is now mostly homebound, sitting or lying down in one place. His main pastime is to watch the door (like a watchdog) – who came in, who went out, and meet any new arrival with excitement or a bark of disapproval.
  6. Stage VI: 90 years ++: This is the age of Owl. The feeble person sits and dozes the whole day in one corner of the house but is unable to sleep at night (without a sleeping pill).

My Experiences in Life

I have realized that in each of these stages, relationships (not money, or professional success) are the most important tools for navigating this journey joyously and harmoniously.

  1. Spouse: The maximum time you will spend in this life will be with your life partner, making it one of the most important relationships. Like a true partnership, love, warmth, care, respect and honesty are very important in maintaining a strong and loving relationship.
  2. Parents, siblings: In the earlier phases of life, relations with your parents and siblings are also important. These relationships often go through phases of ups and downs. Conflicts with parents may arise due to generation gap. With siblings, sometimes conflicts of interest in shared legacy could cause bad blood. But I always maintain that all the conflicts must be brought to a closure within the lifetime of both parties.  An interview of  the caretakers of “Mukti Bhavan” in Varanasi (where people go to spend their last days due to the belief that death in Varanasi brings you assured salvation), who had seen a few thousand deaths closely, showed that the biggest unfinished agenda on the conscience of dying people was to bring closure to family conflicts.
  3. Friends: In every stage of life, especially in the latter half, the importance of having good friends, with whom there is no agenda, but pure friendship, cannot be over emphasized. Their company, even on the phone, can always bring a smile to your face even in the worst of times.
  4. Children: I want to delve at some length on our relationship with our children. When the children are young, parents often try to mold their thinking towards a particular direction. They may also pressurize them for good academic performance, or excellence at other activities. In my thinking, both these are counterproductive. We need to guide them gently but should allow them to make their own choices. We cannot pass the burden of our desires and unfinished agenda to them. In my life, I have always tried to follow the principles, most beautifully enunciated by Kahlil Gibran in the following poem:
Image result for kahlil gibran on children
  1. My last point is about living with your children in their home. In my opinion, when you live with your children, the best policy is to follow the “Three Monkeys of Mahatma Gandhi”. You must wrap a cloth strip on your eyes (no see); a lock on your lips (no speak) and some cotton in your ears (no hear). We must understand that it is THEIR home; they have every right to decide how they want to live their life; how much they earn or spend, how they raise their children. We may be tempted to give advice, interfere in their way of life (in honest belief that we are correcting their mistakes), but it will lead to nothing but conflict. I may think that slapping your child for a mistake is a fit punishment (as I had experienced in my childhood) but, in our children’s thinking, it might be wrong. I may think that splurging on buying the latest gadgets is a waste of money but for them, it might be the ‘done’ thing. Therefore, you should be happy with their love and respect, but you should never try to impose your thinking on them. To me, this is The Golden Mantra for happiness.

Given the evolving life cycle (empty nests, increased longevity, earlier retirement), the above principles and relationships will always stand in good stead and help make the years of Donkey, Monkey, Crow, Dog and Owl, more Human.

How Effective Are Multiple Quality Checks

Anyone, who has travelled through any airport in India, would have noticed a strange obsession. The baggage tag on carry on baggage is checked multiple times by different persons – at the end of the security check, at the boarding gate, at the stairs of the aircraft. I always wondered what purpose did so many checks serve (apart from some disguised employment generation).

World over, many industrial organisations have had such multiple levels of quality checking. But then it was realized that this did not result in better quality. On the other hand, it diluted the responsibility of every quality checker, who assumed that even if he did not do a thorough job, someone else would detect the defect. Ironically, in many organisations, this attitude resulted in a larger number of defective parts going undetected (besides adding to the cost due to extra manpower).

My Consulting Experience with an Indian Organisation

I was consulting with a leading Indian tyre company on their organisation structure, workflow and human resource strategies. In this connection, I visited their plant to observe various tasks and processes.

After finishing manufacturing processes, each tyre was subjected to a final Quality checking by a dedicated team. But I was surprised to see that in between this final Quality check and finished goods warehouse, there was another Quality check team which again checked each tyre.

I asked the General Manager of the plant about the rationale for this practice.  He replied, ” we want to be absolutely sure about the quality of each tyre.” 

My next question was, “If you get a customer complaint about a defective tyre, which of the two teams will be held responsible”. He could not give a satisfactory answer to this.

Later, after the completion of the study, I made a presentation of my findings and draft recommendations to the whole top management team including the Chairman, MD and the General Manager of the Plant. During this presentation, I flagged this dual quality checking also, and why it seemed redundant. To illustrate my point better, I narrated a small story to them (with a disclaimer that it was completely a work of fiction and any resemblance to any living person or company was only coincidental).

The Story      

During the Middle East disturbances, a regiment of US army was stationed somewhere in a deserted place in Iraq. As per the SOPs, teams from Surgeon General’s office visited various army locations to monitor health safety standards. The conversation between the Commanding Officer (CO) and Surgeon General team leader (SG) who came for inspection, went like this:

SG: Mr. Commander, how do you ensure that the water used by you is free from harmful bacteria and other impurities?

CO:  We have located a large source of water nearby from which we draw our water. We have got samples of the water tested in a laboratory to ensure that it is potable.

SG:  But how are you sure that the laboratory or its results are reliable?

CO:  Good point. We had also thought of that possibility, and hence we treat all our water with Potassium Permanganate before use.

SG: But how can you be sure of the quality of Potassium Permanganate you use?

CO: Again, an incredibly good observation. We had also thought of that possibility and hence we boil all our water before use.

SG: But how are you sure that you have boiled it enough to make it safe?

By this time, CO was about to lose his cool. But he checked himself and replied in a calm voice: Yes, we had also thought of that possibility. Therefore, we drink only beer and use the water for washing purposes only.

The lesson went home effectively. The Chairman gave a hearty laugh and ordered to discontinue the double quality check.

Action and Result: are they correlated?

In my childhood, I used to read a children’s magazine called “Chandamama”. Every issue of Chandamama carried one story from a series called Vikram and Vaital. The premise is thus: Vikramaditya was a very wise and honest king. A tantrik (a spirit doctor) requests Vikram to help him in completion of a major ritual by carrying a Vaital (A corpse occupied by a ghost, which is lying on a tree) from the tree to the place of his ritual. Vikram overpowers this “Ghost in a corpse” and carries it on his shoulder to the place of ritual. However, the Ghost puts a condition that, during this journey, Vikram must not utter a single word, and if he does, the corpse will fly back to the tree. To pass the time, the Ghost tells Vikram a story, and at the end of every story is a question. Vaital asks Vikram to answer that question truthfully, but the moment Vikram gives the answer, the corpse flies back to the tree. Vikram goes after Vaital again, is told a story, answers the question, and the cycle continues.

Every issue of Chandamama carried one story from Vaital. One of these left a deep impression on my young mind and I remember it even today after over 60 years. It ran like this.

The Story

A shepherd was grazing his sheep in a jungle. It was a hot day and he felt very thirsty. While looking around, he spotted a well full of water. Just as he was about to draw water from the well, he heard a loud warning from the sky. “Careful! If you draw water from this well, you will cause a major war and destruction of a city.” The shepherd was puzzled – how could a mere act of drawing water from the well cause a war? Since, he was very thirsty, he decided to ignore this heavenly warning (which anyway did not make any logical sense to him) and went ahead with quenching his thirst. He was happy to notice that nothing happened after he drank the water. So, he assumed that the warning was a hoax.

But, unknown to him, his action of drawing water from the well set a chain reaction. The well had a large beehive on its inner wall. When the shepherd drew water, it disturbed the honeybees and they angrily flew out of the well. One of them stung the tail of a wild bison. Due to the pain, the bison started running around like mad, and in this mad stampede, half trampled a highly poisonous snake. In reaction, the snake also started slithering around. At the same time, the King of that kingdom, was roaming around the jungle on a hunt. As he stepped close to this agitated snake, the snake bit the King. Due to the deadly venom, the King died within a few minutes. The King was young and not yet married. He had no heir to the throne. Using this opportunity, a neighbouring King attacked this Kingdom and after a fierce war, annihilated it. Ultimately, unknown to the shepherd, the celestial warning came true. 

Vaital asked Vikram whether the shepherd was guilty of all this destruction. After pondering on this, Vikram replied that the shepherd could not be held guilty, as it is beyond a human to even comprehend how his one innocent action could trigger such a trail of events.

After reading this story, a seed of doubt was sown in my mind about how random the result of any action could be. And therefore, what’s the point of shooting a potential misguided arrow?

In later life, many other incidents happened which fed my mind with this conflict and dichotomy between action and result; taking charge of life or leaving everything to fate?  After a lot of search, I found a reasonable answer in 2 places.

Teachings of Bhagwat Gita

The Bhagwat Gita has tried to answer this dilemma very well. In my simple understanding, it says that everyone must do whatever is expected of him (his Karma) to best of his ability (using the available information and reasonable prediction about the future behaviour of the related environment). After having done his Karma, one should leave the result to God (or Destiny) as the result depends on many external factors which we cannot even begin to visualise. 

We generally tend to take all the credit for a favourable result and curse our fate for the unfavourable result. This leads to either too much happiness (or ego satisfaction) or too much grief. We lose our sense of balance. Hence Gita propounds the concept of Equanimity, i.e. one should not be too elated if the result comes in your favour and similarly, not feel too despondent on getting unfavourable result. 

Parallelogram of Forces

Once, I had the good fortune to meet a monk of Ramakrishna Mission. This Swamiji was a scholar with a Ph.D. in Physics. His explanation was based on the principle of the parallelogram of forces. According to him, we are born with a force consisting of our past accumulated Karmas. This force propels us forward or pulls us backward depending on the nature of those accumulated Karma. Another force acting on us is from our current actions or Karmas.  Assuming that past Karmic force is on X axis and the current Action Force is on Y axis. Then, the Resultant of these two forces represents the direction in which we will move (as in the theory of parallelogram of forces). Example: A person may achieve a lot with little effort (low Y, but getting acceleration from a high X) whereas someone else may achieve very little even after substantially more efforts (high Y which is getting retarded by a low X).

My Take

I find both these explanations and the resultant philosophy useful and practical to attain a sense of peace and equanimity in both success and adversity.

  1. The only thing in one’s locus of control is his/her current action, so give it your best.
  2. The result of that action is influenced not only by the past actions, but also from the actions of other things in the environment (Butterfly effect: a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can cause floods in Bangladesh)
  3. Hence take the result of every action in one’s stride and do not dwell a lot on the causality between action and the eventual result.

Last ExampleAbout 40 years ago, when I was living in Delhi, we used to often take a train to visit my hometown Jodhpur. At 6.30 in the morning, the train would stop at a small, non-descript station called Khunkhuna. Surprisingly, its halt was for almost 30 minutes. The reason was that the Steam Engine needed to refill its water tank and in the arid landscape, Khunkhuna had a source of abundant water. This was a good time for breakfast and a few enterprising villagers set up shops selling hot milk, tea, Jalebi, Samosa, Kachori which made for a sumptuous satisfying breakfast. So, the moment the train stopped, almost everyone would run to these shops for the welcome treat. The train halt was a clear boost for the employment of the sleepy small town of Khunkhuna. Once, while travelling, belly rumbling in happy anticipation of the hot breakfast, I waited for the train to make its usual 30 minutes halt. But to my disappointment, the train barely stopped for two minutes, and all the hawkers were gone. Then, one co -passenger, who was a regular traveler on that route, informed me that the Railways had replaced the Steam Engine with a Diesel Engine (which did not need to fill a water tank), and hence no longer needed to halt at Khunkhuna. I often wonder whether the hawkers preparing the hot breakfast ever thought that this upgrade decision, though seemingly unrelated, would ruin their livelihood.

FUTURE IS BRIGHT

There are a few well known and universally recognized principles in Economics and Finance when it comes to sick companies. These are 

  • Do not throw good money to chase bad money
  • Concept of sunk cost
  • Cut your losses

The Situation

I was working as adviser to the scion of a traditionally managed Indian conglomerate. My client had inherited a few companies when family assets were partitioned amongst different branches of the large joint family.

One such mid-sized company, which came to my client, was an almost 50-year-old company on the verge of sickness. It suffered from the usual maladies of companies of this vintage – old and inefficient technology (some of the controls still used old electronic vacuum tube valves) and precarious health of badly maintained machinery. Clearly, it needed a major revamp and a consequent infusion of fresh funds. 

But unfortunately, the owner did not have sufficient liquidity of his own to pump into this unit; and no bank or financier was willing to lend money to this losing concern. We were in a Catch 22 situation. My suggestion was to bring a strategic partner on board who could bring capital in lieu of a share in the equity. But my client was not keen on selling a stake in the family company. He somehow was optimistic that in the next 3 months, he would be able to revive the company by better working of the plant and generating internal resources. I was clearly very skeptical of this happening.

After 3 months when we reviewed, the situation had deteriorated further, despite the owner pumping in some of his own money. Once again, I told him that these small doses of money were like putting a few drops of water on a hot girdle – the water just evaporates. Unless a critical mass of capital is injected, the unit could not be revived. Once again, he gave himself 3 months time. I do not know what gave him the optimism that in 3 months, he would get sufficient funds. This was a clear case where sentimental attachment to a company (started by his grandfather) was clouding his business decision. 

At this moment, I decided to tell him the following parable.

The Parable

This is the story of two donkeys who were identical twins. Once, their parents took them to “Kumbh Mela” where they got separated and lost due to the surging crowd. (A favorite story of many Hindi Films).

After a couple of years, accidentally, they met in a market place and somehow recognized each other. It was an emotional moment for both. 

They then started exchanging notes about their life since the time they got separated. For ease, let us call them Ram and Shyam. Ram looked very happy and healthy. He said he was picked up by a kindhearted washerman (dhobi in Hindi). In the morning, the washerman loaded all the clothes on Ram and went to the river. There, while he was washing the clothes, he would set Ram free to graze around. The riverbank was full of the best quality green grass and Ram feasted on that. In the afternoon, Ram was again loaded with the washed laundry, which the washerman delivered to the customers.  In short, Ram was having an incredibly good life.

Now came the turn of Shyam – who looked very weak, malnourished, and had festering wounds on his skin. He said that he was picked up by a village potter (kumhar in Hindi), who was not only poor but was also very ill-tempered. He would not allow Shyam enough rest, would not give him enough to eat and would beat him with his stick very often.

Ram was very sad to hear this story of his twin, Shyam. He knew that his owner “the washerman” was going for an expansion and was looking to recruit one more donkey. So, Ram suggested that Shyam should abandon the potter and come with him to join the washerman instead. He was sure that his kindhearted owner would give a better life to Shyam.

Contrary to his expectations, Ram found that Shyam was not enthused by this idea. In a sad tone, he said, “I am grateful to you, my brother, for thinking about my future. However, I do not want to change my job”. When a shocked Ram asked for the reason for this seemingly foolish decision, Shyam explained, “My owner has a pretty young daughter, and I am in love with her. Every time, she handles the pots, her ill-tempered father shouts – be extra careful with the pots; if you break even one of them, I will get you married to this donkey. So, my brother, you will appreciate that my present is wretched, but my future is very bright”    

Last word    

While this is a hilarious story, we can find many Shyams around us. A large number of closed businesses are a testimony to the unfounded and unrealistic optimism of owners for a “Bright Future” which did not allow them to take hard corrective actions in time.

agrawalhk@gmail.com

wisdomofhk.com

Importance of Churning

A few decades back, when I, along with some friends, started our Management Consultancy practice in the field of Strategic Planning, it was a relatively new concept in the Indian industry. After a preliminary introduction to the organization, our engagement with the company generally started with a Brainstorming session with the senior management team. I was fully aware that many of the participants were skeptical of this process. After all, how could an external consultant- who did not have any in-depth knowledge of their Products, Technology, Markets or Competition- be of any meaningful help to them? It was a genuine concern and had to be addressed. For this purpose, I took help of a well-known story from the Indian Mythology – called “Samudra Manthan”. The word literally means “Churning of Sea” (In Hindi, Samudra means the Sea and Manthan means churning). Many of my friends would be familiar with the story hence I give it below only in brief.

The Story of Samudra Manthan

A long time ago, there were two opposing forces who were in continuous battle for gaining control of the Kingdom of Heaven. They were called Devas (demigods representing “good”) and Danavas (literally monsters representing “evil”). The battle waged for many years with no one coming at the top. Finally, ‘Lord Vishnu’ suggested that they find “Nectar” (Amrit), which had the power of bestowing immortality on any living being. It was to be found if the Devas and Danavas, together, churned the Great Sea.

Thus, began the great churning of the sea or “Samudra manthan”. (Interestingly, I saw a giant sculpture at the Suvarnabhumi Airport at Bangkok, Thailand depicting the scene of the Samudra Manthan). For churning, you needed a Churner, a rope to rotate the Churner with, and a solid base on which the Churner could rest. The holy Mount called “Mandrachal” was selected as the giant Churner. The great celestial serpent called “Vasuki” was chosen to be the rope used for churning. The back of a giant Turtle (an incarnation of the God) was used as the solid base on which the Churner rested. 

Samudra Manthan Sculpture in Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok

With the Devas and Danavas at the opposite ends of the rope (like a tug of war) they churned till, one after the other, 14 priceless objects came out from the Sea. One of the first objects to come out was a very toxic and lethal Poison (called Halahala). It was so powerful that it started burning the whole creation. When nobody knew how to control it, Devas and Danavas requested Lord Shiva for help.  Lord Shiva agreed to drink it for the sake of saving the Creation. Lord Shiva was a great “Yogi”. With his Yogic powers, he could neutralize the poison and hold it in his throat. It is said that due this, his throat became blue and hence he got a new name “Neelkanth” (in Sanskrit Neel means Blue and Kanth refers to the Throat). 

The last object to come out of this great churning was the pot full of Nectar.

The story goes on further but for our purpose, this portion of the story suffices. (Those interested in knowing more could search Samudra Manthan on Google).

Using this story to clarify the role of an external consultant

Referring to the story of Samudra Manthan, I would tell the group before the brain storming session, “The answers to the long-term strategy always exist within the organization. But they are not visible, as they may be present within different corners of the organization (like the Nectar was in the Sea or like Butter is in the Milk). And to bring these answers out in the form of a cogent strategy, we need to churn the thought process of the senior management team. To facilitate this churning, one needs an external churner, and I (as an external consultant) was performing that role – by throwing provocative questions, bringing examples from other organisations, guiding structured discussions. The external consultant would also effectively neutralize the deadly poison, which often gets generated in the process, through an unbiased discussion. I was sure that if this churning was done well, the group itself would be able to discover a valid and meaningful Strategy, relevant to their organisation”. This normally helped in clarifying the role of external consultant.

Churning as an important process in our personal evolution

Later, as I reflected on (or churned the thought in my mind) the concept of churning (it could be called by various names like deep thinking, reflecting on our experiences, Hindi word Chintan), I realized the importance of this process in Human Development. Almost all scientific discoveries have been results of “Churning” of observed phenomenon by the Scientists. 

Churning has been particularly useful in deriving simple theories of life from observing happenings around us. In this respect, I am a great fan of Saint Poet Kabir Das who was born in the 15th Century in India. He was an illiterate weaver but has written extensively about deep eternal truths of life by observing and reflecting on everyday happenings in nature. In one of his couplets he says, “In this world, everyone is ready to help one who is Strong. But the same person does not mind harming one who is Weak. To prove his point, he gives an example from nature – of a gust of wind, which snuffs out the fire of a candle but feeds the forest fire.”

And the journey of life is also nothing but a massive churn of emotions and relations. If you have the right enablers (churners), or friends and relations as sounding boards, it ensures that when one encounters the many storms of life, the experience can result in something good.

In the sea of life, with unwavering faith, optimism and constant churning, we can neutralize the poison of bad experiences and eventually derive its Nectar. 

agrawalhk@gmail.com

wisdomofhk.com

Helping others without feeding own ego

This real life incident happened to me almost 25 years ago.

I used to live in Delhi, with my house located very close to the airport.  One morning I got a phone call from a dear friend. His aged mother, who lived in Kolkata, was critically ill and he and his wife had to reach Kolkata as soon as possible. Since he lived quite far away from the airport (and this is in the pre internet booking days), he requested me to rush to the airport to secure tickets for the first available flight to Kolkata and wait for him there. I immediately left for the airport. Fortunately, there was a flight for Kolkata leaving in a few hours, but unfortunately, it was fully booked. Not giving up, I then requested the security personnel to allow me to meet the Airport Manager. He was a kind person who listened to me patiently and then arranged for 2 tickets via some VIP quota. Soon, my friend and his wife reached the airport and, thankfully, were able to board the flight in time. The next morning, I got a call from him, informing me that his mother had breathed her last a few hours after they had reached.

While I was deeply sad for his loss, somewhere in me, I found a strange feeling of pride (may be arrogance) that due to my efforts, my friend could be with his mother in her last moments. Later, when my friend was back in Delhi, I asked whether his younger brother (who was working in Varanasi) was also able to make it in time. He replied in the affirmative. He recounted that the brother had been away from Varanasi on work-related travel and that they were unable to contact him directly (this was pre- mobile phone era). With great difficulty, they contacted his office in Varanasi who had sent someone to locate him. He then took a passing train and travelled unreserved but was finally able to reach Kolkata in time to be by his mother’s side in her final moments.

I realized that if his brother could reach from a remote area, there was absolutely no reason for me to feel that without my help, my friend would not have made it.  This reminded me of two stories from my childhood which reiterated the point.

Shivaji’s Story 

Once, there was a severe famine in the kingdom of Shivaji. He started a large scale public works project (building forts) to give employment to people. While inspecting the ongoing work, an egoistic thought crossed his mind – “without my help, it would have been very difficult for so many people to survive this famine”. His Guru – Samarth Guru Ramdas – who was alongside him, sensed this arrogance and asked some of the workers to bring to him a particular stone slab. He then ordered the slab to be broken into two parts. When it was broken, they found that there was a hollow inside the stone and some water had seeped into that hollow in which 2 small frogs were swimming. With a mischievous smile, Guru Samarth told Shivaji, “Shiva, you are such a compassionate person that you even took care of supporting these frogs”. The allusion was enough to melt the ego of Shivaji.

A Large Hearted King

There once was a very generous and kind King, who always gave donations to anyone seeking his help. But strangely, he always cast his gaze downwards while giving the donation. When his minister questioned him on this strange behaviour, his answer was, “The Giver is someone else (God) who keeps sending me wealth for donations. I am only a medium. The recipient’s eyes are full of gratitude for me. If I look into his eyes, I may also start believing that I am the giver. To avoid this arrogance, I keep my gaze down.”

Last Word 

Friends, helping people, giving to the needy are all very noble deeds. But never let this feed your Ego. The world does not depend on me. If I do not help a person, someone else may do so. The recipient is not surviving solely because of me. Always thank God while helping others- thank Him for giving you the means to help others and thank Him that he chose you as a conduit for this good deed. Let us stop using the words like “Donation”, “Charity”. Let us start calling it “My offering”.

Friends, helping people, giving to the needy are all very noble deeds. But never let this feed your Ego. The world does not depend on me. If I do not help a person, someone else may do so. The recipient is not surviving solely because of me. Always thank God while helping others- thank Him for giving you the means to help others and thank Him that he chose you as a conduit for this good deed. Let us stop using the words like “Donation”, “Charity”. Let us start calling it “My offering”