Two Birds in a Tree: Timeless Indian Wisdom for Business Leaders

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Looking back to the ancient knowledge of the Indian scripture the Upanishads, Ram Nidumolu finds the core philosophy of sustainable leadership that's needed today. In this remarkable book, he uses a powerful parable from these scriptures to create a business vision that our world desperately needs.

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Chapter 1: Being in Business

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He who sees himself in all beings,
And all beings in his own self,
Loses all fear and embraces the world.
ISHA UPANISHAD

There are two birds, two dear friends, who live in the very same tree.” So say the Upanishads, ancient Indian philosophical texts about the nature of reality.1 “The one lives in sorrow and anxiety and the other looks on in compassionate silence. But when the one sees the other in its power and glory, it is freed from its fears and pain.” These two birds are symbolically perched at two different levels in the tree.2

The first bird, which lives in constant anxiety, is in the lower branches of the tree. Its view obstructed by the many branches of the surrounding trees, it hops around nervously, pecking at fruit both sweet and sour. So focused on eating fruit, it loses sight of the world around it and gets caught up in satisfying its immediate material desires. It is disconnected, in a way, from its environment and other beings and jumps from branch to branch, from one disappointment to another.

 

Chapter 2: Being Connected

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He who knows both doing and knowing,
Through doing overcomes death,
And through knowing attains immortality.

He who knows both the explicit and the tacit,
Through the explicit overcomes death,
And through the tacit attains immortality.
ISHA UPANISHAD

According to the Upanishads, the lower bird within us is concerned with the world of sense gratification—of pleasure and pain, happiness and sorrow. The behavior, capabilities, and motivations of this bird are relatively easy for us to track and understand because they are identified with our material body. The unity of matter, mind, life-breath, and intelligence comprises the material nature of the living person. This material self is something we are intimately familiar with; it gives us a point of view for everything we think and do.1

The concept of the higher bird in us, the universal or true self (Ātman), is the great and shining jewel of the Upanishads. The Ātman is the ground from which the material self is formed. It has been described as “The principle of man’s life, the soul that pervades his being, his breath, his intellect, and transcends them. Ātman is what remains when everything that is not the [true] self is eliminated … there is an unborn and so immortal element in man, which is not to be confused with body, life, mind and intellect. … Our true self is a pure existence, self-aware, unconditioned by the forms of mind and intellect.”2

 

Chapter 3: The Higher Reality of Rituals

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From the false, lead me to the real,
From darkness, lead me to light,
From death, lead me to immortality.
BRIHAD-ĀRAṆYAKA UPANISHAD

The first stage in the lower bird’s quest to realize the higher bird is its recognition of its current situation and the larger context of the tree that is its higher reality. In business, it is an attempt to be aware of the preoccupations of the moment and at the same time recognize the higher reality within which business is embedded. This recognition usually begins in an indistinct, tacit way that is hard to articulate initially but gradually becomes stronger and more explicit over time.

In this chapter, by looking at the role of rituals, I will identify two key aspects of this higher reality: the larger relationships of business and the shared purpose of business leaders. I will develop these concepts more fully for business in the next chapter. The importance of rituals to ancient India (and other Axial Age civilizations) roughly paralleled that of business work to modern societies. The goal of rituals was to relate the larger context of human existence to the life of an individual human being. I illustrate this goal through my own experience with the rituals of death—some of the most important of hundreds of ancient Indian rituals.

 

Chapter 4: The Higher Reality of Business

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When the gods made a sacrifice
With the Man as their victim, …
From his breath the wind was born.
From his navel came the air,
From his head there came the sky,
From his feet the earth,
The four quarters from his ear,
Thus they fashioned the worlds.
RIG VEDA1

In the quest to realize the higher bird, the lower bird first needs to lift its gaze from the preoccupations of the branch and fruit below and recognize the higher reality of the tree above. For business leaders, as I suggested in the previous chapter, this means recognizing the higher relationships of business and the shared purpose of business leadership itself. Let’s consider first what the Upanishads say about these higher relationships and shared purpose for human beings, especially as they relate to nature. I’ll then apply these lessons to business leadership.

The Upanishads maintain that humanity has been inextricably connected to nature from the very beginning. To emphasize this point, they retain a key image from the Vedas: the world as created from the sacrifice of the primeval being. In the Vedas, this primeval man (purusha) was Prajāpati, the Lord of Beings, who existed before the creation of the universe. The gods sacrificed this primeval being, and the natural elements were produced from his body, as the opening verse of this chapter describes.

 

Chapter 5: Engaging with Experience

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Take this great bow of the Upanishads,
Place in it an arrow sharp with veneration,
Draw it with mind fully engaged,
Know the target as Being, my friend.
MUṆḌAKA UPANISHAD

By now, the lower bird has some recognition of the higher bird; it has a larger sense of relationship and shared purpose for itself. Even if it is only at a tacit level, this recognition can be a powerful force and a source of inspiration and energy for a business leader. The next stage in the REAL road map makes this recognition more tangible and explicit through experiences that fully engage the heart and mind of the business leader. The need to engage is important, as shown in a story involving the sage Yājñavalkya and a great king in the Brihad-āraṇyaka Upanishad.1 It has been called the supreme teaching of the Upanishads and says that to make progress, we must genuinely desire to engage fully in the quest for the higher bird.2

Once long ago, Yājñavalkya came on one of his periodic visits to the court of King Janaka, the wisest and most powerful ruler of his times. He brought with him a supreme wisdom that he intended to keep to himself.3 When the two were seated, King Janaka began his questioning, intent on shaking loose this wisdom from a reluctant sage.

 

Chapter 6: Deepening the Experience

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Death and rebirth take place in our consciousness
Therefore keep the mind pure
For one becomes one’s consciousness:
This is the eternal mystery.
MAITRĪ UPANISHAD

The journey of the lower bird to the higher bird accelerates when the lower bird has deep experiences that enrich its vision of the latter. Such experiences can be further enabled if we view business leadership as a field of consciousness that mediates the interactions between the corporation and the business leader. Everyone in the corporation has a special role in business leadership, just as every subsystem in our brain has a special role in our human consciousness.

If business has to transform itself, this field of consciousness needs to change first. Moreover, because leaders contribute to this field in ways unique to them, the experiences that change them are also special to them. In my case, the experience of Gandiva as an early-stage start-up had a deep and special impact on my own journey.

Considering the vantage point of the early-stage entrepreneur has several advantages. During the initial stages when the company is being formed, the founder (or founding team) has an overwhelming impact on the nature and performance of the start-up. In turn, the founder’s sense of self is heavily affected by the start-up, as any founder will attest. Early-stage start-ups are also one of the riskiest, most uncertain, and most stressful of corporations. As a result, business leadership in a start-up becomes a vivid and dynamic field in which the beliefs, values, vision, and actions of the founder shift considerably under intense pressure.

 

Chapter 7: Anchoring in Suffering

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Demon-haunted are the worlds
Filled with great darkness
To these dark worlds
Go the slayers of the Self.
ISHA UPANISHAD

The third stage in the quest to connect to the higher bird is to find a perch on the branches of the tree where a steady line of sight with the higher bird can be maintained. The lower bird needs to steadily and consistently anchor itself in a vision of the higher bird that can withstand the storms that rage around it. According to the principle of correspondence, the lower bird acquires the whole-tree perspective of the higher bird by connecting steadily to it. In the case of business, Being-centered leaders can then understand the real state of the business. This is the vision of the whole that they lack on their own.

If we are to understand why business is not whole today, we need to trace our journey back to the business schools that produce the business leaders of our world. The kind of education given in these schools has been an important factor in the global recession because it emphasized competition and techniques much more than cooperation and ethical values.1

 

Chapter 8: Anchoring in Well-Being

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Reality is Joy.
From Joy, all beings are born,
Through Joy they are sustained,
And into Joy they all return.
TAITTIRĪYA UPANISHAD

For the lower bird, anchoring in the branches of competitive comparison leads to a fragmented and distorted sense of success that is not sustainable. The end result is a constant dissatisfaction and a feeling of inadequacy that can lead to great fear and suffering. For business leaders, what is needed instead is to anchor in a kind of success that gives a far broader, more satisfying and consistent view of the higher reality of business. The Taittirīya Upanishad suggests one such anchor for Being-centered leaders.1

A young boy, Bhrigu, was the son of the great teacher Varuṇa. When the time was ripe, the son approached his father and asked, “Radiant one, teach me about the mystery of reality.”

The father answered briefly, “It is food, the breath of life, the eye, the ear, mind, and speech.” But then he also told Bhrigu, “Reality is that from which beings come, in which they live and are nurtured, and into which they return when they die.” Varuṇa then asked his son to meditate further on the subject, since instruction alone was insufficient to understand reality.

 

Chapter 9: Leading by Inclusion

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Know the Self as the chariot’s lord,
Our body as the chariot itself,
Know the rider as our intelligence,
Our mind is the rider’s reins,
Our physical senses are the horses, they say,
While material objects are the paths they travel.
He who is without understanding,
With unrestrained mind and senses out of control,
Is like a chariot out of balance, with bad horses.
KAṬHA UPANISHAD

Once it has found a steady anchor and is less affected by the storm, the lower bird can begin to take the confident steps that will lead it to the higher bird. It now has different paths by which it can scale the tree and lead the way for the other birds in the lower branches. One way for Being-centered business leaders to lead by example is to be inclusive and show commitment to the material and humanistic well-being of stakeholders besides investors and themselves.

The problem with existing ways of defining business success is not that they include material well-being. The problem is that they are unbalanced because they focus overwhelmingly on material well-being or focus on a small set of stakeholders (for example, the investors and senior management) to the exclusion of others. Here’s a story from the Chāndogya Upanishad on the dangers of such a focus.1

 

Chapter 10: Leading as a Steward

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This whole world is covered by the Self,
Whether moving or still:
Support yourself by renouncing ownership,
Set not your heart on wealth that is not yours.
ISHA UPANISHAD

The lower bird has an alternative to the humanistic branches that connect it to the higher bird: nature’s own branches also lead to the top of the tree. For business leadership, the core of this alternative is stewardship, the concept that business and humanity are guardians, rather than pillaging owners, of nature and its elements. As stewards, the role of business leaders is to preserve and renew nature for future generations of human and other living beings rather than dominate nature for their own purposes. If business leaders are stewards, then who is the real owner?

The Upanishads have a ready answer: it is the universal self (Ātman), which interpenetrates this world but is beyond it. In the Chāndogya Upanishad, a homeless person named Raikva tells Jānaśruti, the richest man of the town, a tale that illustrates who the true owner of this world is.1 One day, while two learned men were eating, a student came up to them and asked for food. When the men turned him away, the student said, “Who is that being who guards this world and to whom all this wealth truly belongs? Though unseen by all, he is present everywhere.”

 

Chapter 11: Leading as a Sage

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By Being’s sacred sound,
The wise reach that which is
Peaceful, beyond aging and death,
Fearless and ever supreme.
PRASHNA UPANISHAD

For the lower bird, the journey to the higher bird holds yet another possibility: the ability to fly directly to the trunk near where the higher bird rests. In the case of business, we have considered three different ways in which Being-centered leaders lead by example: as an inclusive materialist, as a humanist, and as a steward. But these ways can also be integrated within the same person, much like the tree trunk integrates all the tree’s branches. Also, this integration often spans a long portion of one’s life, much like the tree trunk spans the tree’s life.

The key to such integration is a concept that shares the same meaning: integrity. The two are derived from the Greek words integras and integritas, which mean “making something whole and undivided again.” In the same way that a tree trunk gives greater access to the whole tree, integrity enables leaders to acquire a larger knowledge of business as a whole, which is wisdom.

 

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