What constitutes Good management? – Lessons from Ancient Sanskrit Scriptures
By Prof. B Mahadevan, Inidan Institute of Management, Bangalore
Is Sanskrit relevant to contemporary society? The popular thinking is that there is very little in Sanskrit that is of great relevance in today’s scheme of things. We have been witnesses to great revolutions in the field of science and technology, especially in the last 50 years. We are very happy that these technological advancements have greatly improved the standard of living in a developing country like ours. However, we’re not sure if, in this process, the quality of life has improved as well. We have so many problems confronting us on a day-to-day basis in education, governance and the society at large. Few of our youngsters are creative and innovative enough to come up with extraordinary performances in their chosen fields. There is a lacuna in leadership as well.  In this state of affairs, what can Sanskrit do? Its scriptures and ancestral works of wisdom contain apparently dated ideas that may interest the religious and philosophically minded, but how is it relevant for solving the kind of problems we are facing today?   

Allow me to answer this question by showcasing the contemporary relevance and usefulness of Sanskrit in the context of Management.  

Management: A context for contemporary relevance

First, we need to clearly understand what is meant by ‘contemporary relevance’. To me it appears that if a proposition, a concept or any entity is to be defined as contemporary, it must :

1.  Contain key ideas that one can relate to current day living

2.  Contain principles that one can practice to resolve existing problems.  

It is from this perspective that I propose to show you that Sanskrit is indeed relevant in the modern day. 

The concept of Management is always relevant, and affects every person who is part of any social system; it is not a specialized subject to be used only by a handful of people. A householder, a teacher, a student, a professional, NGOs and organizations have each to observe specific principles of management if his/her efforts are to fructify. In developing countries like India, most of the problems faced by the country result from the bad management practices followed by our administrators.  

Sanskrit is a rich repository of knowledge that could be gainfully exploited in the area of classical science, including mathematics, astronomy, health and so on. As a professor of management, I’ll be happy to leave an impression at the end of the day that Sanskrit literature also provides considerable scope for us to draw useful lessons for managing our day-to-day living.

Guiding principles of management

I have been teaching students of management for the last 15 years, and based on this experience I can list down some of the most important attributes that constitute good management: 

¨   The ability to think big, visualize and be creative.

¨   Adopting systematic approaches to problem solving: this involves developing a spirit of inquiry, a sense of keen observation and getting an empirical understanding of events through classification, coding, generalization and verification of findings.

¨   Acquiring an attitude of learning as a way of life

¨   Capacity to manage conflicts that arise between long-term and short-term goals

¨   Developing leadership traits  

Developing these skills invariably leads one to perform exceptionally well, develop great insights about problems and solutions. In today’s lecture, I would like to explore the wonderful expressions in our ancient Sanskrit literature, which illustrate how our ancients were guided by these principles of good management.

Visualising, thinking creatively and thinking big

One of the serious deficiencies that we have noticed amongst Indian managers through our numerous interactions is that they are not adequately creative. Where should we learn to nurture our creative skills, to learn how to think big, to visualize? The average young person in our country would not know that our ancestors were among the most creative people on earth.  How do I say that? Let me answer the question by giving you some examples. 


Since time immemorial, the human race has been constantly engaged in trying to understand the relationship between God, man and the universe. In our ancient literature, there are not one, not two, but six schools of philosophy that seek to elaborately address this issue, each in its own way. These schools of philosophy are Nyaya, Vaisesika, Sankhya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimamsa.  

The aspects of Creation (Brahma), Preservation (Vishnu) and Destruction (Siva) of the Universe have also been imaginatively dealt with by our rishis and ancestors in the form of eighteen Mahapuranas - six each covering Brahma, Vishnu and Siva.  

Let us consider the question how to reach salvation:If you look at our yogic Sciences, four alternative methods have been proposed - Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, Jnana Yoga. We were told that each individual is unique and therefore requires unique methods of reaching salvation. What greater evidence do we need to acknowledge that we, as a society, believed in the value of imbibing an awareness of different viewpoints, understanding Reality by approaching it in different ways, expressing the idea differently for different sets of people? As far as I know, the essence of Vedic thought and Hinduism promotes diversity as a way of life, which in turn is a good indicator of the powers of visualization and creative thinking of a society - the very values that a good practitioner of management requires today! 

Thinking creatively

So far, all I have said is intended to encourage you to think that, perhaps, our ancestors cherished the values of creativity and visualizing the big picture. There are more ways of understanding how creativity was manifest in our culture, society and thinking. Take any of our ancient works such as the Upanishads or the Gita. One thing that is strikingly different is our ability to provide unique mechanisms of knowledge representation. Let me give you some examples: 

A verse in the Mundaka Upanishad and a similar passage in Laghunyasa too, loosely translated say that the presiding deity of the pair of ears is space and the presiding deity of the pair of eyes is the Sun or Agni.  

Taken at face value, or literally, such a description of the sense organs in terms of their presiding deities may sound nonsensical; but consider them from the following, different perspective and you will be amazed by the element of creativity that has given rise to such unique knowledge representations. 

Think for a moment that there is no sun to light the world (of course there was no electricity in those ages). It would be pitch dark everywhere. Of what use is the power of vision in such a situation? Similarly, sound waves cannot travel from one place to another in a vacuum. Ether is the medium in which it travels. Therefore, the description of sense organs in terms of their presiding deities imaginatively communicates some idea about their functioning and the enabling mechanisms required. The curious can find umpteen examples of such creative thinking in the Sanskrit literature of our ancestors 

We have the greatest possible creative narration in the two Ithihasas - Ramayana and Mahabharata - besides a rich legacy of mythological stories outside the purview of these narratives. What better expression of creativity can there be than that expressed in these great works of our ancestors?  

Thinking big

  As for the issue of thinking big, which is another important attribute of management, why is it important that managers should think big? Ability to think big brings along with it an intense desire to achieve the dream and motivates a person to carry forward his vision along with his peers in achieving such a goal. This is true not only for a manager but for any visionary.  Unfortunately, we do not find many of today’s youngsters exhibiting this attribute. 

Is there anything to learn from our past as far as thinking big is concerned? The first thing that comes to my mind is the lesson on how to think big that is provided by chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita, wherein there is a beautiful description of the Viswaroopa Darshanam of Lord Krishna. The radiance of Lord Krishna, in this stanza, is equated to the light emerging from a thousand sunrises at the same time! 

The timelessness that this ability to think big confers on the thinker was affirmed when Robert Oppenheimer, who exploded the first atom bomb quoted these very lines from the Gita to his team, saying that the light that emerged as a result of the explosion reminded him of the thousand rising Suns described in the verse. How many Indians would have related some of their unprecedented experiences in life to such timeless expressions found in many of our ancient Scriptures and Vedantic texts? Why is it that we never think about the work done by our ancestors? Perhaps, one reason for this is that we are not even aware of what we have in our Sanskrit scriptures! 

Our ancestors, emphasizing the need to think big, went to the extent of equating the ability to think big with immortality, as this verse, in translation, shows:  

             In the little there lies no happiness

The vast alone is  bliss;

            Immortal is the vast

Mortal is the little. 

Our ancestors’ ability to think big is probably best represented in their approach to mathematics and the number system in particular. In the second chapter of Lilavati of Bhaskaracharya, there is a description of numbers from 100 to 1017.  Our ancestors even felt the need for much larger numbers than this. I am given to understand that there are terms for numbers up to 10140 in Sanskrit! 

In Srimad Bhagavatam (also called Bhagavata Maha Purana), a work that comes under religious literature, Canto 3, Chapter 11, gives a beautiful description of the concept of time ranging from 10-6 seconds to 1017 years!  

 There are many more examples that I can quote as evidence of our ancestors’ ability to think big. Let me show you another example from our scriptures before I take up the next attribute for good management. The second column shows the number of human years (365 days) attributed by our ancients to each of the time periods in the first column:


Number of years

1 Cycle of 4 Yugas


Day time of Brahma 


Night time of Brahma


One day of Brahma


100 Years of Brahma 


One half of Brahma's life 


By merely increasing our awareness of these great works, we will definitely be inspired to think creatively. Going a step further and learning the language, reading the immortal works of our ancestors, and understanding their beauty, will breed in us a desire and an attitude to think big.

A systematic approach

As a management researcher I find that the requirements for developing superior principles of management are qualities that our ancestors have always believed in - developing knowledge through inquiry, keen observation, systematic classification, coding and empirical generalization of observed phenomena. 

What happens when you have a systematic approach to developing knowledge? One immediate benefit that we will get is to develop better understanding of seemingly complex ideas. We will also be in a position to classify things better and use the classification framework to explain a variety of observed phenomena. I see evidences of these in several of the ancient works. 

Spirit of inquiry

Throughout our ancient Scriptures we find that our ancestors have not been wanting at all when it comes to the spirit of inquiry. Get hold of a copy of the Upanishads or the Bhagavad Gita, albeit in translation, and count for yourself how many questions were asked during the discourses therein. In Prashnopanishad (prashna+upanishad), for instance, Pippalada and six disciples discuss some of the toughest ideas about life, Nature, God and the universe with their teacher. The entire discussion is in a question-and-answer mode. It is this unflagging spirit of inquiry that enabled our ancestors to develop superior knowledge, unique knowledge representation systems, diversified and alternative theories and the perfect language called Sanskrit. 

Keen observation, etc.

The other important requirement is an ability to keenly observe events, systematically develop classification methodologies, empirically generalize observed phenomena and build theories based on the insights obtained. 

Perhaps, there is no better evidence of our ancestors’ ability to develop systematic knowledge than what you see in Canto 3, chapter 11 of Bhagavata Maha Purana. We already saw that in this very chapter of the Purana, the concept of time has been described vividly. Also contained in this chapter is a precise methodology for the measurement of a unit of time, nadhika:  

Take a pot of copper weighing six palas, which can hold one prastha of water and pierce the bottom of the pot using a gold needle weighing four mahsas and four angulas long. If you leave the pot floating on the water surface, the time taken by such a pot to be fully submerged as it gets filled with water through the pierced hole is equivalent to one nadhika. 

Saturn is near star Rohini.  Mars is approaching Anuradha from Jyestha. There is a planet near Citra (Udyoga parvan)

  1. Saturn is staying near Rohini (Bhishma parvan)
  1. A white planet resides, having crossed Citra (Bhishma parvan).

 Do you see the scientific rigour in this definition of a unit of time? 

How many of you know that there are references in the Rig Veda that give the velocity of light as accurately as what we know today?  

In the third chapter of Prashnopanishad, the guru defines vyana.  What is vyana?  We’ll find out presently.  Now, just consider this description: 

The atma is the heart; the ultimate spirit sits here; there are a hundred and one nadis emerging out of it; out of each one of these nadis you get a hundred more; and from each one of them, seventy two thousand.  

When you multiply all that (1x101x100x72,000), you realize that this is the nervous system that they were talking about, for, using modern gadgets, it has been found that there are 72,72,00,000 (seventy two crore seventy two lakh) nadis in the nervous system of homo sapiens.  

How did they make such observations? That is not the question I’m trying to answer. That there was some systematic way of looking at things, a spirit of scientific inquiry, a way of documenting all that - that is what I am trying to show you. 

Another example of our ancestors’ ability to systematically develop knowledge is clear from the stark contrast between the modern, evolving definition of health and our ancestral approach.. Let me contrast our ancestors’ definitions with that of WHO. 

In 1940, the World Health Organization described health as the "state of complete physical, emotional, and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity". This widely accepted definition was expanded only in the 1970s and 1980s to include other components such as intellectual, environmental, and spiritual health.  

 In contrast to this definition, our ancient definitions were much more holistic. They

<>emphasized the need for including issues much more than mere physical aspects.

Sushruta clearly states that being healthy means having a healthy soul, mind and sensory organs (suggesting healthy thinking and action). Similarly, Charaka emphasizes that the appropriate definition of being healthy means “being one’s own self”. 

Such robust definitions can only be the outcome of a spirit of inquiry and a systematic approach to observation and knowledge creation. 

Learning as a way of life

We saw so many examples of creating superior knowledge that led our ancestors to develop frameworks to understand complex ideas in life, develop deeper insights into observed phenomena and lay down several governing principles in science, mathematics and astronomy. How do you think this was possible? What infrastructure do we need to develop these skills? We find answers to this question by understanding the concept of learning as our ancestors practiced. 

I teach a very interesting concept called creating a learning organization, because it is the “in thing” for business organizations. Being in the institute of management, I am supposed to impart new ideas in management to my students. But I always begin with the following millenium-old couplet of our ancestors, which beautifully summarises the concept of learning as we are beginning to appreciate today.  

Acaryat padamadatte padam sishyah svamedhaya
padam sabrahmacharibhyah padam kalakramena ca.

<>Meaning: From the teacher, a quarter is learnt; a quarter, the student learns through reflection; another quarter, he learns from discussions with peers; the rest he learns only with time. 

Today, there is enormous emphasis on self-reflection and thinking. If people refuse to think, internalize and reflect on the ideas they have acquired, then 25% learning is gone. In the last 10 years, in business schools and corporate entities, there is a premium on what

is called ‘small group activities’, on ‘team effort’ –  and the potential opportunities for learning during such exercises. Interestingly, the sloka says that collective discussion of the subject matter results in 25% learning. Further, it was after considerable research during the 1990s that management researchers concluded that learning is a continuous process. On the other hand, our ancestors reached the same conclusion 1000 years ago. They proclaimed that 25% of a person’s learning will occur in the course of life.   

I am using this couplet in my learning organizations’ lectures simply because I stumbled on it accidentally. If we systematically delve into our literature with specific focus, what treasures may we end up uncovering! 

How to resolve conflicts between short term and long term issues

Before we take up this question, let me take a minute or two to introduce to you the concept of ‘going concern’. What it literally means is that when we judge the performance of a company, typically at the end of every year, we make an important assumption that the company is not going to be wound up; it intends to ‘go on’ existing. This is precisely why we prepare a profit and loss account and a balance sheet to judge the performance of a company.  

This modern concept of a ‘going concern’ finds an easy parallel in the Hindu idea of reincarnation, which tells us that at the end of this life we carry along a net ‘profit’ or ‘loss’ to one more incarnation and so the journey goes on until we are released from the cycle of rebirths. The challenging part, however, is the ability to manage life during this sojourn and finding a way to end the cycle of rebirths. This is a classical problem of resolving short-term and long-term conflicts.  

In our ancient literature, there are numerous discussions on how we should handle this conflict. Understanding the methodologies propounded by these deliberations and reflecting on the basis on which these arguments are founded would go a long way in shaping our ability to apply the same ideas to conflict resolution in the context of managing short-term versus long-term issues .

Leadership traits

How do we identify good leaders - what are the traits that distinguish them is a question that bothers many of us in management.  

The Bhagavad Gita.says, “Leaders need to practice what they preach; otherwise they lose their credibility.” 

This is a well known and easily understood dimension of a good leader. Let us look at another sloka in the Gita, which brings out a subtler concept of leadership.  

In this sloka, Krishna says that he is likely to be a good leader who is not swayed by flattery nor affected by dissent and loses not his composure even when abused or attacked.He says emotional stability is the greatest requirement for a good leader.  

These days, we ask managers aspiring to be leaders to keep their nerves under all circumstances - ‘If you do something great, don’t lose your balance. Even if you have lost everything, don’t lose your balance.’ ‘Don’t see whether a person belongs to the opposition group or your group. Look at the whole discussion objectively,’ we advise.  Krishna was not saying anything different. 

The way forward

Today, we have covered sufficient ground on the issue of relevance of Sanskrit to contemporary society, in the context of management. As a professor of management, it was both a convenience and a conscious choice for me to opt for this topic. But, if we take up alternative topics such as relevance of Sanskrit to contemporary society in the context of public administration, science, mathematics, or astronomy we would probably find that Sanskrit has a lot to contribute to these areas of knowledge as well.  

One more issue seems to strongly suggest the need for Sanskrit in today’s world. Winning Intellectual property rights (IPR) battles, which are increasingly governing world trade, requires an ability to establish the chronology of events leading to the process or product or knowledge for which the IPR is being claimed. To provide evidence of our country’s prior knowledge of unique processes and products we need to know Sanskrit, for, in that language lies buried all our erstwhile knowledge. Relevance of Sanskrit, therefore, assumes particular significance for Indians in this day and age. But the existing infrastructure for imparting Sanskrit education is far from what is required to gainfully benefit from our ancient wisdom.  

How are we going to solve this problem? Little can be expected from the government and the political class; neither can something miraculous happen to enable a critical mass to learn Sanskrit adequately so as to help our country reap the benefits that could be mined from the wealth of Sanskrit literature. To me, it appears that there are two options for dealing with the critical issue of preserving the language for the future of our nation: 

  • Students who are in a position to make a conscious choice to study Sanskrit at the  school and the college levels must do so. By doing this, they prepare themselves for greater, more meaningful and targeted efforts of putting the  language to day-to-day use in the future.
  • Professionals who have sorted out the major concern of earning a satisfactory   livelihood can take up learning Sanskrit, so as to bring into the limelight  interesting ideas and ancient wisdom pertaining to their profession, which subsequently can be inducted into the mainstream.  

If several of us make a conscious effort to participate in this process, gradually the government, the policymakers and the public will see the relevance of the language and a day will come when learning Sanskrit and putting the learning to use will become as attractive as doing that with the foreign language called English.