The shramana way or the samsara way

Pradeep Chakravarthy | Updated on June 19, 2019 Published on June 19, 2019

HR has the option of using two Indian models for seeking connection and improving performance

From the time we are conceived within a womb till the day we die, regardless of our gender, race or nationality, we are constantly performing and our performance is constantly being assessed by many around us.

Inside the womb, we are monitored by ultrasound equipment. Outside, the early years are about passing exams in school and college. Getting a job is another criterion and once we have a job, holding on to it becomes important. Here, performance criteria become more complex. Even then, the first few years are straightforward. There is a goal sheet and if the fresher performs against them on his own, things are fine. Going higher up, when you work with a team, things become more complex. Now, you cannot complete all the tasks on your own but need others who always seem to have different ideas on how things should be done. With a team, it may seem like one has more control but the reality is different!

To improve one’s performance, one needs to work on greater connection with the team. Learning and development offerings from the HR department now present the following alternatives on achieving this:

‘Lead self’ option

The word shramana literally means one who labours, toils, and exerts oneself, even at the cause of great physical discomfort. Some of India’s most famous teachers were Buddha and Mahavira. Many learning offerings today are closely inspired by Buddhism. Offerings from this path are clear that the path to connection is tough, long and lonely. Teachers guide but all the work has to be done by the individual alone. Once he has found connection within, he shares it with others out of compassion.

Such programmes are long, arduous, require vows of silence and intense self-work. They may not be wholly Buddhist as well. Hindu teachings will also be a part of this. Relationship-building is to be focussed on the self and when that is done, the task accomplishment automatically flows.

‘See others’ option

The “opposite” of a shramana is a samsari — a householder mired in relationships that he has to work with and still earn a livelihood. A samsari cannot afford to take time off, time is literally money! The offerings from this side are opposite of the ‘self’ option. Here, if we connect and truly see the others with darshan (empathetic gaze), work through yagna (give-take exchange and not a sacrifice) not only can this happen with less personal stress but connection with others translates into connection with oneself as well. Sadly, workshops in this space have been few.

Recently, based on historical conflict-management principles from the Chola/Pandya empires and mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik’s Business Sutra, the Mangalyam workshop looks at building relationships to not only get connection with others and self but achieve tasks as well. With 300+ people covered in a little over a year from pilot, this is one of the few that have looked at this ancient model for modern corporates.

Management consultant Raghu Ananthanarayan also moves from the other to the self, but he uses the Itihasas, Indian folk theatre and yoga. There are a few others but their models are not so tightly connected to the ancient samsari options and this is a space that deserves much more offerings.

American management science

Options from this space are most plentiful. In fact, many Indian trainers working for Indian companies with Indian clients and Indian employees will use these much more than the former two! These offerings, which focus on a Leader who has to inspire his followers with a long list of traits, are based on two traditions.

One is the Judeo-Christian one, of a chosen prophet who will lead his people to deliverance and westerns notions of individual choice and individualism. With the advent of greater equality, post World War, where leaders were few, this changed to everyone has the capacity to be a leader and has to exhibit those traits to move their followers to higher levels of task completion. Relationship-building here becomes a tool for completion of the task.

In the 1990s, when people realised that in these offerings the balance had moved too closely to task, they took to the shramana tradition because by then Buddha had become familiar in western circles or western leadership authors had learnt from individual godmen or monks in the East and the shramana principles of individual focus resonated easily with western ideas of leader’s personal responsibility and individual ownership.

By now, if you are asking which of these three options is the best, you have missed the point entirely! The desire to seek connection internally and with others is universal and timeless. As also the equally powerful need to be seen as different. Ancient India gave seekers a choice. One end was the shramana tradition which said ‘find internal connection and then external’. The costs are high but the benefits deep. The samsara tradition said, ‘find external connection and then internal will automatically happen’. It is easy, comfortable and just as effective. The question to ask will be, which do I choose for my team and me— do I do it out of comfort or do I mix the two and how do I do so for my own unique needs?

Introverts with a strong need for independence will veer to the shramana model. Extroverts with a strong need for inclusion will veer to the samsara tradition. Both converge but the entry is different.

Western management science will give us tools and tables and reduce this to a formula.

Indian thinkers were wiser — they did not give formulas for such complex people issues; just like with a thaali, you eat what you want the way you want, they created these two choices, through many stories and parables, reminded us the hermit needs the householder for support as much as the householder needs the hermit for guidance. It is about the choice and then the combining.

Today, learning and development is no longer a small department tagged to HR. They have deep connects to business and can improve profits 3x times. It is, therefore, time they look more carefully for offerings from these two schools that would be far more relevant for our teams and people.

Pradeep Chakravarthy is a behaviourist who works on altering behaviour using lessons from Indian history, philosophy and mythology. Reach him at

Published on June 19, 2019

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