From Indian philosophy to Western business

Cultural Insights — By on October 31, 2007 at 7:47 am

Can the ancient Indian philosophy of Vedanta be of help to high-powered modern businesspeople? Many seem to think so, at least according to this Time magazine article about Swami Parthasarathy, an 80-year-old spiritual teacher from India who has been making a living and a name for himself as a business consultant.

An excerpt from the story:

The private dining room in Manhattan’s timelessly tony 21 Club is packed with more than 60 CEOs, corporate presidents and managing partners. They represent a cross section of mostly midsize New York City-area businesses. There’s a biotech exec from Manhattan, an aerospace guy from Long Island, the head of a jewelry firm in New Jersey, a manufacturer of architectural lighting–all of them members of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), an international fraternity of business leaders who have won their corner offices by age 45.

This group of BlackBerry-wielding overachievers has filled every seat to hear from a man who will let them know that, despite the title on their business cards, they are functioning at less than full throttle, distracted by needless anxiety and basically missing the boat on their voyage through life. He’s a man who adds new meaning to the phrase business guru: 80-year-old Swami Parthasarathy.

Parthasarathy … has been traveling the globe for 35 years, speaking to business people–including at such bastions of commerce as Wharton, Kellogg and Harvard business schools–luring them with assertions about learning to improve concentration and productivity, eliminate stress and develop their intellectual discipline and overall well-being. His message derives from his lifelong study of the ancient system of philosophy called Vedanta, the focus of a nonprofit academy he established 19 years ago outside Mumbai…

Swamiji’s message, delivered in part via that transcendental software, PowerPoint, and some well-placed jokes, is that stress is not a function of external demands–the number of employees and dollars to manage, e-mails to answer, strategic plans to complete or loved ones to placate. Stress is internal, he insists. Make a rational assessment of your situation with all its requirements and flaws–consider, for instance, the past behavior of your customers, your colleagues, your spouse–adjust your expectations accordingly, and the stress will vanish…

Such equanimity might appear to be incompatible with soaring professional ambition, but he disagrees. Parthasarathy, who studied international law at University College, London, tells the room that he starts his day at 4 a.m. and ends it at 9:30 p.m., never needing a break or vacation, though with plenty of time to maintain his health with yoga and cricket.

“You believe work tires you? Work can never tire you!” he scolds. “What tires you are your worries about the past and anxiety for the future.” The undisciplined mind, he says, too easily slips into the past and future, veering toward likes and dislikes that prevent you from staying focused on your present objectives.

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