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Buddha in the Business World 2

[Continued from Buddha in the Business World 1]

Siddhartha first says in Kamaswami’s house as his guest and then begins working for him. “Siddhartha learned many new things; he heard a lot and spoke little. And thinking of Kamala’s words, he was never subservient to the merchant, forced him to treat him as an equal, yes even more than an equal. Kamaswami conducted his business with care and often with passion, but Siddhartha looked upon all of this as if it was a game, the rules of which he tried hard to learn precisely, but the contents of which did not touch his heart.”

Simultaneously, young Siddhartha learns other things too – from Kamala. “Much he learned from her red, smart mouth. Much he learned from her tender, supple hand… Wonderful hours he spent with the beautiful and smart artist, became her student, her lover, her friend.”

Kamaswami soon realizes that while Siddhartha has no real interest in business, he has “that mysterious quality of those people to whom success comes all by itself.” Kamaswami is not sure what exactly it is, but he makes a few observations about Siddhartha and his ways. For one thing, Siddhartha “always seems to be merely playing with business-affairs, they never fully become a part of him, they never rule over him, he is never afraid of failure, he is never upset by a loss.” Also, “that Siddhartha surpassed him, the merchant, in calmness and equanimity, and in the art of listening and deeply understanding previously unknown people.”

On the advice of a friend, under the hope that this would perhaps make Siddhartha take more interest in business, Kamaswami makes him a shareholder in his business, with a share both in his profit and in his loss.

But Siddhartha never takes any more interest in business than he did before. “At one time, he traveled to a village to buy a large harvest of rice there. But when he got there, the rice had already been sold to another merchant. Nevertheless, Siddhartha stayed for several days in that village, treated the farmers for a drink, gave copper-coins to their children, joined in the celebration of a wedding, and returned extremely satisfied from his trip.”

True, Siddhartha can see the commercial advantages of this. “If I’ll ever return there again, perhaps to buy an upcoming harvest, or for whatever purpose it might be, friendly people will receive me in a friendly and happy manner, and I will praise myself for not showing any hurry and displeasure at that time.” But that is not the reason why he spends time with the people. It is not future benefits he has in mind. It is not a business strategy for Siddhartha. He truly values their friendship for its own sake. Among his most cherished memories of the time are that he has gotten to know people and places, received kindness and trust, and found friendship; that children have sat on his knees and farmers have shown him their fields.

Siddhartha values people for themselves and not for their commercial worth. He is genuinely interested in them as people, as human beings.

Like Kamala who wanted to take credit for what she had done to him out of love, Kamaswami too wants to take credit for what Siddhartha had learnt from him, and but his need to take credit is not as innocent as that of Kamala. Siddhartha calls this a joke and tells Kamaswami, “What I’ve learned from you is how much a basket of fish costs and how much interests may be charged on loaned money. These are your areas of expertise. I haven’t learned to think from you, my dear Kamaswami, you ought to be the one seeking to learn from me.”

Again, I want to point out here, it is not ungratefulness. He is just speaking the truth.

Siddhartha is a true brahmana, in the original sense of the term, and Kamaswami, a bania, a businessman in the true sense of the term. The brahmana should not learn the ways of the bania, whereas the bania should learn the ways of the brahmana. When the brahmana learns the ways of the bania, he ceases to be a brahmana but when the bania learns from the brahmana, he becomes a better businessman. Many are the things that a businessman can learn from the brahmana – his serenity, his search for understanding himself, his independence, his freedom, his equanimity in gain and loss, his fearlessness, his art of listening, his ability to understand people, and countless other things.

“The merchant’s attempts to convince Siddhartha that he was eating his, Kamaswami’s, bread were also in vain.”

A brahmana is grateful to people for the things he gets from them. But he also knows they are not the real givers – the true giver is existence itself, life itself. They are mere instruments.

There is a beautiful saying in my mother tongue, Malayalam. Throw a piece of bread to a dog, and it will wag its tail before you all its life. Give an elephant something to eat, it will be grateful to you for sure, but it will not wag its tail before you.

The rich and the powerful in India, the wealthy merchant, the moneylender and the zamindar, have always forced the poor and the powerless to kneel before them and call them their mai-baap and God after throwing a morsel of bread before them – a morsel of bread produced by the poor man’s efforts. But Siddhartha is not one to bend his knees either before money or before power.

“Whether there was a business deal going on which was in danger of failing, or whether a shipment of merchandise seemed to have been lost, or a debtor seemed to be unable to pay, Kamaswami could never convince his partner that it would be useful to utter a few words of worry or anger, to have wrinkles on the forehead, to sleep badly.”

Krishna tells Arjuna in the Gita: sukhaduhkhe same krtvā, labhālābhau jayājāyau tato yuddhāya yujjyasva. “Treating happiness and sorrow, gain and loss, and conquest and defeat with equanimity, get ready for battle.”

Words of immeasurable wisdom! Words that form the very core of Indian philosophy of work!

This is how a warrior battles. He puts his life at stake every time he enters the battlefield and yet he keeps his equanimity. He wants victory, no doubt, but he remains equanimous in victory and defeat; he wants happiness and not sorrow, yet he is equanimous in happiness and sorrow; he wants gain, but he is equanimous in gain and loss.

Every businessman knows it is impossible to beat a rival who is not afraid to lose.

The Kamaswamis of the world and the Siddharthas are made of different stuff. Where the Kamaswamis are under constant threat and insecurities, filled with mistrust and suspicion, the Siddharthas live their lives in festivity and celebration, in utsava bhava. Stress is a way of life for the Kamaswamis, but the Siddharthas dance through their life.

Just as Siddhartha wouldn’t allow Kamaswami to become his master, he wouldn’t allow business affairs to rule over him. Business is not life for him, it is one of the requirements of life, means of earning money.

There is a Sanskrit verse I love – love immensely. Says Janaka, our greatest ancient ideal for the sage king, the rajarshi, in the verse: mithilāyām pradīptāyām na me kinchana naśyati. “If Mithila burns down to ashes, nothing of mine is lost.” No, this is not Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burns. Janaka is not a hard-hearted ruler who did not care for his subjects. This is a ruler to whom each of his subjects was like a son. A king with total commitment, total dedication, a paragon of virtues, to whom nothing is more important than the welfare of his people. And yet he could say that, because at one level, he was beyond all these things.

That is exactly what it was all to Siddhartha. To him it was all a game he was playing.

Siddhartha is the sthitaprajna the Gita talks about. Well, almost.

Says the Gita about the sthitaprajna:

yah sarvatrānabhisnehah tattad prāpya shubhāshubham
nābhinandati na dveshti tasya prajnā pratishṭhitā.

A sthitaprajna does not feel the kind of possessive attachment other people feel everywhere. And as good things come to him he does not become overly elated, nor does he grieve it when bad things happen to him.

And that is exactly how we see Siddhartha at this stage in his life. He is muktasangah – free from attachments.

Siddhartha loves. But it is not money Siddhartha loves. It is not things Siddhartha loves. He loves people. “Welcome was the merchant who offered him linen for sale, welcome was the debtor who sought another loan, welcome was the beggar who told him for one hour the story of his poverty and who was not half as poor as any given Samana.” And he treated them all equally. “He did not treat the rich foreign merchant any different than the servant who shaved him and the street-vendor whom he let cheat him out of some small change when buying bananas.”

And Siddhartha loves life. “He visited the beautiful Kamala regularly, learned the art of love in which, more than anything else, giving and taking became one.”

In Siddhartha we find the beautiful ancient ideal of India: balancing dharma, artha and kama. Kama is pleasure; artha is wealth; and dharma is goodness, thought for the other, not exploiting others, giving others at least as much as we take from them.

The lesson Siddhartha learns from Kamala about love is equally applicable to business too. Business is at its best when giving and taking become one. When giving becomes taking and taking becomes giving. So long as the two are different, you are only an inferior businessman.

One day with Kamala, Siddhartha makes an invaluable observation. He tells her, “You are like me; you are different from other people. You are Kamala and no one else, and with you there is a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself, just as I can. Few people have that capacity and yet everyone could have it.’

Siddhartha observes that he, a former samana, and the most famous, the most beautiful, the most talented prostitute of the day are alike.

And he tells her in what way they are both alike. She is Kamala and no one else, just like he is Siddhartha and no one else. Both of them are original people, and not of the faceless masses. Each lives his and her life in his and her own way, and not the way the faceless masses live. They have retained their individuality, their uniqueness.

This is the meaning of the word swadharma at its deepest level. Practicing swadharma means being what you are, living what you are. The dharma of a thing is what makes the thing what it is – dhārayati iti dharmah; dhāranāt dharma ityāhuh; and so on. The dharma of fire is to burn, the dharma of water is to find its level. When fire burns, it is practicing its swadharma; when water seeks its level, it is practicing its swadharma. The swadharma of fire maybe to destroy through burning, and the swadharma of water maybe to nourish through flowing; but when fire destroys through burning, it is practicing its swadharma, just as when water nourishes through flowing, it is practicing its swadharma.

Each one of us is born to practice our dharma, our swadharma. Spiritual growth is possible only when we practice our swadharma. All growth is possible only when we practice swadharma. Practicing swadharma is the highest virtue, says all of Indian culture. The Bhagavad Gita goes to the extent of saying that it is better to die in swadharma than to practice paradharma, what is not one’s dharma; for, terrible is [the practice of] paradharma [in its consequences]: swadharme nidhanam śreyah, paradharmo bhayāvahah.

Swadharma is when you become what you are, when you live what you are. When you become authentically what you are and live an authentic life as what you are.

And such is the stress Indian culture lays on swadharma that it never tires of extolling the virtues of swadharma and telling stories about those who practice their swadharma.

Like the famous story of dharmavyadha, the sagely butcher, that appears in the Mahabharata and is repeated in numerous other places, including the Shukasaptati, where I unexpectedly came across it earlier this morning. He is a butcher by profession, and yet he is a great saint too – saintliness acquired through the practice of swadharma.

One of the most beautiful stories I have come across about swadharma is the lesser known story of Bindumati, a prostitute like Kamala. The story says that one day Emperor Ashoka was taking a walk along the Ganga in Pataliputra. A couple of his ministers were with him, as was Bindumati. As they were walking along, an idle thought occurred to Ashoka and he spoke it out. “I wonder,” he said, “if anyone can turn the current of the mighty Ganga backward.” There was silence for a moment or two and then Bindumati spoke. “If I have your permission, Maharaj,” said the prostitute, “I can turn the Ganga backward.”

Ashoka was stunned. The ministers were stunned. The woman must have gone mad! Who can make the Ganga flow backward!

But Bindumati looked serious. She was waiting for the emperor’s permission.

“Show me,” said Ashoka. “Do it now.”

And, says the story, Bindumati closed her eyes and stood in utter silence for a few moments. The emperor and the ministers watched her and then looked at the Ganga. And they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Mother Ganga was slowing down. The greatest miracle of their life was happening right before their eyes. Soon the Ganga became absolutely still. Like a long, endless lake. There was not a movement in the water.

They all turned back and looked at Bindumati with unbelieving eyes. And when they looked back at the Ganga again, the water had slowly begun flowing backward. And soon the roaring, mighty river was flowing backward with the same power with which it had flowed downward!

“How could you do that?” asked the emperor. It was more a shout than a question.

“Because of the power of my swadharma,” answered Bindumati, in a voice as serene as could be. “I am a prostitute and I practice the dharma of the prostitute with total commitment.”

That is the Indian attitude towards swadharma. About being what you are and living what you are.

And Siddhartha tells Kamala: you are what you are and live what you are, just as I am what I am and live what I am.

That is one thing that makes them unique and separates them from the rest of the people around them.

And, he tells her, another thing: she has within her a stillness, a sanctuary to which she can retreat any time.

An inner sanctuary to which one can retire and cut off the world and be oneself.

I do not think there is anything in life as precious as that.

Every one of us feels the need to have a room of our own, into which we can go and close the doors and be ourselves. Virginia Woolf wrote a book by that name: A Room of One’s Own. I believe it is one of every human being’s basic needs.

I believe the need for solitude is as important a need as the need for self-actualization or self-transcendence or belongingness or the other basic human needs Abraham Maslow speaks about. Personally, it has always been with me. Even as a child, I had this need to spend hours all alone. If I couldn’t do that at home, I walked to solitary places and spent hours there. Like the attic of the gopuram of our village temple – it was a large one with a tall gopuram in south Indian style – where I could spend as many hours as I liked all alone. Or other solitary places in our valley.

And yet I believe the need for an inner sanctuary is perhaps even more important than the need for outer solitude. With that inner sanctuary, you can be in solitude even in the middle of a crowd.

Few people have that. Kamala has that. And so does Siddhartha. Having that most precious of human possessions is another common thing they have between themselves.

Sometimes in my executive training programmes I conduct an exercise in building an inner sanctuary to which a person can retire when he needs it. I think more than anything else, it is this that keeps a man sane. In the absence of that, I believe, there is the chance of our turning insane. We all need occasionally to get Far from the Madding Crowd.

To nourish ourselves. To give time for our souls to catch up with us.

James Truslow Adams writes in Time for the Soul: “A friend of mine, a distinguished explorer who spent a couple of years among the savages of the upper Amazon, once attempted a forced march through the jungle. The party made extraordinary speed for the first two days, but on the third morning, when it was time to start, my friend found all the natives sitting on their haunches, looking very solemn and making no preparation to leave. “They are waiting,” the chief explained to my friend. “They cannot move farther until their souls have caught up with their bodies.””

The modern man has great need to give time for his soul to catch up with him. Particularly men in the business world.

Speaking of sanctuary, Margaret Blair Johnstone says: “It gives more than refuge and release; it gives renewal. Essentially, sanctuary is a means of finding the power to face life on lifted wings. It is this power which enables men to “renew their strength…mount up with wings as eagles…run and not be weary…walk and not faint.”

Sanctuaries are opportunities to get in touch with our inner wisdom, to turn away from the world’s chatter and to listen to our inner silence, the silence of our being, its music. The busier you are, the more you have the need for an inner sanctuary. I do not think anyone has ever needed inner sanctuaries as today’s busy executive does – and the higher his position, the more is his need for a sanctuary.

Having a sanctuary is as important as having a vision and a mission in life, as being motivated and connected with people.


One last thing.

One day Kamala and Siddhartha “played the game of love, one of the thirty or forty different games Kamala knew. Her body was supple like that of a jaguar and a hunter’s bow; whoever learned about love from her, learned many pleasures, many secrets. For a long time, she played with Siddhartha, repulsed him, overwhelmed him, conquered him and rejoiced at her mastery, until he was overcome and lay exhausted by her side.

The courtesan bent over him, took a long look at his face, at his eyes, which had grown tired.

“You are the best lover I have ever had,” she said thoughtfully. “You’re stronger than others, more supple, more willing. You’ve learned my art well, Siddhartha. At some time, when I’ll be older, I’d want to bear your child.””

No one can love as beautifully as a Buddha can love. Or a Buddha-in-the-making can love. Even when it comes to physical love, sexual love.

In business, Siddhartha becomes more effective than Kamaswami, the merchant. In love, Siddhartha becomes the best lover the courtesan Kamala has known.

That is what happens when the Buddha enters the business world. He excels in whatever he does.

To be a Buddha is to excel in everything you do.

Krishna, the Buddha who excelled in everything he did, the great master of yoga, the yogayogeshwara, defines yoga as excellence in action: yogah karmasu kaushalam.

No matter what that action is, you excel in it.


Note: For those who are not familiar with the book, Siddhartha here is not the historical Buddha, though he too is a character in the book, This Siddhartha is a Brahmin youth who leaves home in search of the truth, as the Buddha himself did.


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