The Bhishma Way: Noble Ends, Unholy Means

Morality is subtle, Bhishma told Draupadi. An excerpt from the book Bhishma’s Way—Ancient Dharma for Modern Business and Politics by Balasubramanium shows us how the spirit resonated with Tata Group and India’s space launch program.

Morality is subtle, Bhishma told Draupadi. An excerpt from the book Bhishma’s Way—Ancient Dharma for Modern Business and Politics by N. Balasubramanian shows us how the spirit resonated with Tata Group and India’s space launch program.

(Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House)

A big challenge faced by companies is how they adhere to their corporate values while finding an appropriate means to achieve desired ends. Bribery is perhaps the most common challenge that companies and business leaders have to cope with. Corruption, of course, need not always be in monetary terms, although most often it is. It is just a willingness to act dishonestly or deviously in return for personal gain or money, or even to pre-emptively avoid personal loss or injury. Corruption and bribery, or for that matter any unfair mechanism as a means to achieve one’s objectives have always been condemned. Mahatma Gandhi, for example, had no problems with individuals or businesses amassing wealth, only if that was done through what he called ‘pure’ means, which obviously excluded unfair practices such as bribery. He said, ‘I have trained myself never to be concerned about the result. What I should be concerned about is the means and when I am sure of the purity of the means, faith is enough to lead me.’

In these days with companies being pressured to show growth in every quarter, can CEOs satisfy market players with such faith alone? Perhaps not. Efforts to ensure proper, ethical means of doing business will have to be complemented through due monitoring and pressures on execution and achievement of growth plans without compromising on the purity of means adopted at all levels in the organization. In other words, it is about achieving the results without compromising the culture of the organization. ‘An organization’s culture is the sum of its shared values, beliefs, and norms of behaviour. . . When people, especially those at the highest levels of the company, violate one of the company’s basic values, the leader must step forth to publicly disown those violations. Anything less is interpreted as a lack of emotional fortitude.’

In real terms, both the violation and the leader’s failure would tantamount to no one in authority speaking up to distance the company and its values from the violation. A high profile and positive example of this was in 2001, when two leaders of Tata Finance, a Tata group company—non-executive director, Jaivant Talaulicar, and its managing director, Dilip Pendse—were allegedly involved in self-dealing and insider trading activities. This was against the company’s ethical values and behavioural codes, apart from being in violation of the laws of the land. Although both were senior and well-regarded employees of the Tata group both had to step down from their respective offices as soon as their errant activities came to light. In another highly ethical and value-driven group, the president of an unlisted joint venture subsidiary, again very highly regarded by both the Indian and American partners, had to step down when major discrepancies in his financial reports were discovered. Neither his incumbent status nor the loss of a valuable managerial resource for the group came in the way of upholding the values the partner companies stood for.

image003Another example, where the leader stood by his team when things went wrong not by design but by a genuine error of judgement, can be cited from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The late President Abdul Kalam, in an interview, recalled when he was the project director of India’s Space Launch Vehicle Program, which was trying to ensure the satellite Rohini was placed in orbit. Mid-August 1979, the team decided that the initiative was on track, and despite the computerized programme checks suggesting a ‘hold’ on the launch, Kalam, on the assurance of his team members, went ahead with the launch which eventually failed. Satish Dhawan, the leader of the organization who was set to announce the successful launch at a press conference, had to share its failure instead. What was important was that he took full responsibility instead of attributing it to the project director. In a year’s time, in July 1980, the launch was re-tried and was a success. Dhawan who was still the chairman, instead of announcing it to the press himself, asked Kalam to hold the press conference and announce the successful launch. Kalam said he learnt a major lesson that day that in value-based functioning—the leader owns up failures of his team but graciously gives the team credit when successful.

In the Mahabharata itself one finds plenty of such instances, including the one relating to the disrobing of Draupadi. Clearly, fundamental values of protecting the dignity of a woman, and that too a princess, were breached by Duryodhana and his associates in the presence of the blind, but all-knowing King Dhritharashtra and other elders. By any standards, that disgraceful act should have been stopped and Duryodhana and his collaborators chastised but that did not happen. Instead, Bhishma told a pleading Draupadi that morality was subtle. Was he referring to the problem in resolving an issue so delicate, that it was difficult to analyse or describe? Perhaps he was. Maybe he was expressing his inability or unwillingness to discern the correct order of precedence when conflicting values were at play as was the case in this situation.

As a slave (after losing himself in the dice game) Yudhishthira had no property of his own to wager, and he could not stake another’s property without specific consent; and yet, at another level, the wife, often described as Sahadharmacharini (or one who follows the husband in all matters), was an inseparable shadow of the husband through thick and thin and hence deemed to be at the husband’s disposal. Which of these two value principles was to prevail over the other?

Besides there is also the overarching value principle of respecting a woman’s honour. Bhishma quoted Manu as saying on the eve of his own departure to heaven, ‘Women deserve to be honoured, and all of you (men) shall honour them. For womankind is the basis of all order . . .’

Chaturvedi (2006) believes these verses in chapter forty-six of the Anusasana Parva were Bhishma’s final position on the status of women. If that were so, shouldn’t he have stopped the demeaning act then and there? Bhishma, that great repository of wisdom, obviously could not decide and did the next best thing under such circumstances— pass the buck to another. Praising Yudhishthira as a great exemplar of justice, Bhishma referred the matter to the accused himself in a manner of speaking. Considering his compromised position, Yudhishthira chose to remain silent and the question remained unresolved. But often, a non-decision, or silence, is a decision in itself; in the absence of an affirmative instruction from Bhishma to ‘cease and desist’ from the proposed act of disrobing, the perpetrators took it upon themselves to proceed with the humiliation. However, when Draupadi prayed for divine intervention she was supplied a never-ending stream of cloth, thus protecting her modesty. This is perhaps another instance where ‘more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.’

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