Revisiting ancient knowledge sources

Periodically and consistently looking back at the wisdom of yesterday may help us to effectively address questions of today and tomorrow.

Revisiting ancient knowledge sources

Representational Image. (Photo: iStock)

Much has been written about the new trends in management education and technology-driven teaching tools that are making delivery more effective. Some important developments in this context include closer partnerships with industry, experiential focus in delivery, the gradual disappearance of the professor who was a “sage on stage”, a more globally focussed curriculum, focus on new subjects like Big Data, demographic shifts in the classroom, use of technological tools such as databases, video conferencing/telepresence, etc.

Most of all, these changes are happening at a time when the global marketplace in the 21st century is characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (or VUCA, as it is popularly known). This is changing the skills required in managers, and B-Schools need to recognise this changing demand.

Given these changes and the fact that we are in an age where most information is available online for free, the question is of what more can educators offer to management students? In our eagerness to keep up with every trend out there, are we missing out on something that is core to developing our understanding?


Could the answer perhaps lie in looking back while looking forward? This may sound counterintuitive and, perhaps, even absurd. However, there may be some merit in this.

More so when we are living in an age where individuals are grappling with issues like happiness, focus, creativity, stress, and purpose, and corporations are struggling to figure out issues like sustainability, social responsibility, and productivity.

Our ancestors have left behind a wealth of knowledge that for eons was the only source needed to understand human behaviour, economics, law, justice, commerce, and even science.

Apart from ancient texts like the Gita, the Vedas, and the Puranas, people also relied on the writings of experienced and wise men like Chanakya and Ashoka. Let us look at some of the well-known ancient sources relevant to modern management knowledge.

What the Gita teaches B-School students: Perhaps the most well-known verse from the Gita is”Do your duty, but do not concern yourself with the results”. This verse implies that we are obligated to perform our prescribed duties (Karm) and that inaction is not an option.

However, we cannot consider ourselves to be entitled to the fruits of our actions. For students, professionals, and businesses, the verse carries deep lessons in camaraderie, entrepreneurial spirit, handling change, organisational goals, sense of duty, motivation, patience, and just reward.

Chanakya Niti for management students: Holistic concepts aside, let us look at lessons from Chanakya, perhaps the first ever Management Guru and a teacher with some shrewd lessons!

Also known as Kautilya, this Indian scholar is best known for his seminal work, the Arthashastra, for long considered the ruler’s guide for economics and policy and also highly regarded by organisations for corporate strategy and management.

While there are endless quotes, messages, and teachings from Chanakya Niti that one could enumerate, the essence lies in their emphasis on life skills that further self and common interest. The objective of the teachings is not to solely lead a saintly or noble existence but to be practical.

The balance in his teachings can be gauged from a specific example — while emphasising the need to avoid warmongering, Chanakya says a nation should always be war ready.

The Vedas as a source of knowledge for management students: Vedic wisdom is less about external talents and more about understanding oneself and internal effectiveness – traits that are vital for tomorrow’s business managers. At a holistic level, the texts teach us about the paths we need to follow towards our true calling. The lessons go well beyond the holistic level though, as Vedic methods also emphasise mnemonic learning.

As per the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, “A mnemonic device, or memory device, is any learning technique that aids information retention or retrieval in the human memory. Mnemonics make use of elaborative encoding, retrieval cues, and imagery as specific tools to encode any given information in a way that allows for efficient storage and retrieval”.

This was enabled through the development of high levels of concentration in students. This was perhaps the origin of true interdisciplinary learning where a student could compose poetry while solving mathematical problems, simultaneously!

As the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know where you are; and if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you are going; and if you don’t know where you are going, you are probably going wrong”.

Periodically and consistently looking back at the wisdom of yesterday may help us to effectively address questions of today and tomorrow.

(The writer is director, FORE School of Management, New Delhi)