Discovering Jainism – For Business

Jain Nun
The first time I consciously remember hearing about Jainism was when I was in the middle of an obsession with sevens and eights. Inspired by Timothy Leary’s and Robert Anton Wilson’s “Game of Life” and Arthur Young’s Theory of Process, I had been playing with various matrices that describe universe in sets of seven (e.g. Chakras) and eights (e.g. the Law of Octaves). One of the books I came across in this process was James Guy’s “Metasphere”. In the foreword to his collection on “the altered state of word” he describes how the Jain in the 6th century B.C. enumerated reality in a “seven-fold model of predication”:
  1. syād-asti—in some ways, it is,
  2. syān-nāsti—in some ways, it is not,
  3. syād-asti-nāsti—in some ways, it is, and it is not,
  4. syād-asti-avaktavyaḥ—in some ways, it is, and it is indescribable,
  5. syān-nāsti-avaktavyaḥ—in some ways, it is not, and it is indescribable,
  6. syād-asti-nāsti-avaktavyaḥ—in some ways, it is, it is not, and it is indescribable,
  7. syād-avaktavyaḥ—in some ways, it is indescribable.

The complexity and simplicity of this model to describe all of reality fascinated me. But then it was only one of many models that all pointed to an apparent map for how universe structures itself (and, as Count K reminds us: “the map is not the territory”).

I quickly forgot about Jainism again until I met some friends in Delhi earlier this year, who told me that they were working on a research project on Jainism. I learned that Jainism is one of the oldest documented religions and how Jains have a rather unique position in Indian society, being a minority and at the same time running many of the finance and infrastructure businesses of India. It seemed the Jains knew something about the world that could be interesting to learn and share.

Aiming to be a unique and innovative startup, my friends had started this research project while working to include much of the Jain philosophy into their organizational culture. This, of course, piqued my interest even more. Loving to support innovators, I flew to Bangalore to learn more about their project.

Project Anveshan

Project AnveshanUpon arriving in Bangalore I received a download as to the intentions behind the project, the work done so far, and the goals for the coming years. I guided them in developing strategy, structures and processes, but even more so was interested in the conversations about embracing the cultural significance of their work. By making these ancient principles relevant to contemporary times, they could indeed help to affect a cultural change not just in their country, but on a planetary scale.

As my friends now put it on their website: “At Project Anveshan, our collective goal is to explore the tenets of Jainism and their relevance to society, both past and the present. As far as we can see, the larger problems facing the world today are related to consumerism, selfish ambition, attachment and our apathy towards the greater impact of our actions. By rediscovering the essence of parasparopagraho jivanam, perhaps we can bring out the significance of an alternate way of thought.”

Parasparopagraho Jivanam

This is the central motto of Jainism. “It is translated as: Souls render service to one another. It is also translated as: All life is bound together by mutual support and interdependence.” (Wikipedia). What I really like about this is that it is not talking about oneness. It is honoring the individuality of all living things. It honors our necessary separation while upholding that everything is not just interconnected, but mutually dependent. We are all individual nodes in a web of life.

Having lived in California long enough, I have an adverse reaction when people talk to me about “Oneness”. As one of my yoga teachers once put it: “If someone starts talking about oneness, hold on to your wallet and your girlfriend!”

I believe in separation within an underlying whole. I live in a multi-solipsistic universe, so this Jain motto was speaking to me. It didn’t seem “spiritual”, it seemed pragmatic. Obvious and elegant in its simplicity, powerful in its application.

Jain NunsIt seemed to work for the Jains. While they have an active living monastic tradition, with their monks and nuns having walked the earth continuously for millennia (another sympathy point for a glomad like myself), Jainism also has one of the richest traditions of prescriptions for laypeople. And rich laypeople at that. As mentioned above, Jains hold down a significant portion of the financial services sector in India, and Jains own many other infrastructure businesses. So it seemed fair to assume that their personal and collective operating system of Jainism might have tenets that could be applicable in business, and could lead to sustainable success – in this case, not just monetary profit, but business fully integrated into the web of life.

Some of the key principles in Jainism I learned about:

  • Parasparopagraho Jivanam – All life is interconnected and mutually dependent
  • Anekantavada – “refers to the principles of pluralism and multiplicity of viewpoints, the notion that truth and reality are perceived differently from diverse points of view, and that no single point of view is the complete truth.” (Wikipedia)
  • Ahimsa – The doctrine of “do no harm”, also referred to as nonviolence, which, according to Jainism applies to all living beings – including all animals
  • Aparigraha – The concept of non-possessiveness or non-greediness. The term usually means to limit possessions to what is necessary or important

So let’s take a look at them, their general meaning, and how they might be applicable in business, both from an internal as well as external perspective, shaping both organizational culture and brand.

Parasparopagraho Jivanam

As stated above, this is the primary principle behind Jainism. All other tenets can be deduced from here. If we really appreciate that we are a diamond in the web of diamonds as the Buddhists put it, that we are an integral part of a mutually dependent whole, our actions automatically have a different level of respect and consideration for others.

If we take this concept into a organizational context, we can distinguish between internal and external context.

Internal Context: Your Organization as a Living System

Any business is an interconnected and mutually dependent system. A business can be split up into its processes and the people who make decisions and take the actions that make up these processes. In today’s age, we are beginning to see ever more inventive business models, where elements of the process are taken care of by automated agents and artificial intelligence, or – where AI is insufficient – by mechanical turks. I would venture to say, we will see more and more models like this arising. For now, though, we are mostly dealing with people.

Implementing the concept of Parasparopagraho Jivanam, could mean understanding your people as more than human resources, as more than cogs in the machine. You would begin to fully appreciate each individual, their contribution to the organization, not just in terms of their work processes, but their personality, their energy, how they influence the environment and culture around them and are influenced by it. You would begin to focus on creating meaningful participation for each of your employees, wanting them to understand themselves as an integral part of the organization and finding a level of fulfillment in their work. It would shift the focus from the purely mechanistic view of business we inherited from the industrial revolution toward a more holistic human view.

External: Spherical Stakeholders

This holistic view would then quickly extend itself to the external components of the organization, to your relationships with vendors and customers in your network. It would also highlight other stakeholders like the community you operate in, and the people affected by your products or their production.

Recently there have been models like triple and quadruple bottom line. They are beginning to account for the true impact of an organization. All too often the effect on external stakeholders beyond vendors and customers is conveniently ignored. And even then all too often vendors and customers become labels, rather than containers for meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships.

Each vendor or customer represents a living being. With Parasparopagraho Jivanam as a core guideline, this would quickly become obvious and probably lead to shifts in relationship and interactions. Your customer service alone would significantly benefit from this understanding. Beyond that, your organization could quickly become a true and responsible member of the communities you are affecting.

Anekantavada

elephant-blind-menIf I assume an interconnected and interdependent reality, then it is an easy next step to give each of these individual points of perception their own validity. Anekantavada refers to the principle of multiple points of view, where no individual point of view can ever see the whole picture. Therefore, diverse points of view are respected and encouraged. It is also the understanding that all human comprehension is limited, which is why “in some ways” is even added to the most fundamental tenets of their logic as introduced above.

Internal: Actively facilitating viewpoints

Far too many business meetings I have experienced over the years are highly competitive: apart from a lack of listening, there is an active, at times even aggressive, contest about “who is right”. To any observer half-way educated in communication, this is, of course, ridiculous. Unfortunately, we have debate teams in high schools rather than classes in active listening and communication. Considering that we spent the majority of our daily lives communicating with others, it is astonishing that we don’t educate our young more rigorously in communication theory, basic semantics, logic and, most importantly, respect for other people’s opinions.

As we move from a world of Newtonian Physics with hard edges into a world of Quantum Physics, where we – at best – have probabilities, we will probably learn to do more of this. In addition, the increasing number of women in leadership positions, who tend to be better at actually communicating, will probably have a positive effect.

For now, actively encouraging and training your staff in effective communication will do wonders. One of my clients saved himself 80% of his back-and-forth emails with his clients simply by adjusting his language and communication behavior, something that took about an hour to share with him.

In addition to cutting out unnecessary and combative communication, having respect for multiple viewpoints can further inspire you to facilitate some of the quiet voices in the room. In many meetings I have been in, someone on the table actually knew the solution to the problem we were discussing, but did not feel encouraged to participate. Asking and prompting your quieter, more introverted team members will do wonders. Try it.

External: Listening to vendors and customers

And as we are on the topic of listening and facilitating input: do the same with your vendors and customers. When a customer comes to you to complain, this is not a nuisance, this is a gift. They are taking the time to actually let you know that there is something wrong. We only do that if we care: If we loved something, but then were disappointed. In some especially exciting cases, customers might even have ideas on how to improve something they already love. Ask them. Ask them how they use your product. Ask them what they like. What they don’t like. Ask them about themselves, their lives, how your product fits into their lives. The more you facilitate input from them, the better your product or service will be – and the more raving fans you will have out there to help you market your product. Especially in today’s world of online reputation, this is not a nice-to-have, this is vital.

There is a lot of hype about “owning the conversation” about your product in the social media world. Go beyond the hype. Truly respect everyone’s opinion of your business and actively facilitate feedback.

Ahimsa

mahatma gandhiProbably one of the most commonly known concepts in Jainism is that of Ahimsa, often translated as non-violence, or “do no harm.” Ghandi, himself inspired by Jain monks, popularized this concept and inspired the modern civil rights movement with ripples all the way into contemporary times.

What is unique about Jains is that they extend the idea of non-violence toward living things all the way to animals and even plants. Jains accept that “Jivas”, living things, require other living things to live. Life eats life, but within that, they developed a system of categorization based on the number of senses, to minimize the harm done when eating. With each of us a node in the web of life, why would we not want to minimize the harm we do to others around us. If we really grok the notion of an interdependent whole, then hurting others by default hurts ourselves.

There is a subtlety to violence. Especially in a world numbed by the daily murders on TV, we think of violence as bloodshed, as – in the least – punching and shoving. Violence goes much deeper than that: Tone of voice, body language, manipulating behavior, there are many subtle ways in which we harm each other. Nobody enjoys violence toward them.

You can even use “Ahimsa” as a culture tool. Allow anyone in the organization to call an “Ahimsa” moment any time they feel there is aggression in the room. In that moment everyone has to stop and check in with themselves, ask themselves not “was I violent?”, but “how was I violent just now?” – because we all are, by default, in every moment taking life in order to live ours. Might as well check in. I suggested this technique to a client of mine, it worked wonders for their meetings, and helped to change the culture of the organization to be the non-violent atmosphere everyone was ultimately looking for.

Internal: Organization as kin

Everyone who works in your organization is part of a whole. Your organization. It is one of a kind. Hence, wouldn’t it make sense to treat everyone who belongs to it kindly? Much of the quality of the work place lies in its culture. Working in an environment where people treat each other kindly is probably one of the most effective means of making your organization attractive to talent. This does not mean everyone is hyper politically correct and “nice”. It means that there is no backstabbing, no manipulation, no harassing, or other means of hurting people who work in your organization and a zero tolerance towards these behaviors.

External: Kind competition and conscientious treatment of the environment

Why stop inside your organization? Coming back to the notion of spherical stakeholders, why wouldn’t you want to be kind to them as well? This does not mean not saying “no”, it does not mean not negotiating fair deals, but it means to actively look for win-win situations instead of trying to make everyone conform to you so that you can squeeze a few points out of your margin. Which includes mother nature. She has been hurt the most in the years of rampant unchecked greed. Do no harm to nature would drastically change the landscape of products we consume, and consumption behavior as such.

Aparigraha

Aparigraha might be the most challenging to relate to business – or maybe the easiest. It is the concept of non-possessiveness or non-greediness. It means to limit possessions to what is necessary or important. On first glance, this might seem diametrically opposed to the concept of ever growing profit. At the same time, it might just be what could help our broken world. A business is there to make money. There is nothing wrong with that as such. Even to aim for growth is a valid desire. The question comes in when we ask ourselves at what cost. If we find that we begin to sacrifice other values, e.g. non-violence toward nature, in order to make a quick buck, then we know we are off course. If we squash our competition not because we have a superior offering, but because of slander or other PR tactics, we know we are off course.

Internal: Fair wages

CEO payThe current spread of CEO wages to minimum wage is at an all-time high. In 2013 CEOs made approximately 300 times more than their average workers. I appreciate the special role of an executive, the responsibility and the stress that comes with holding that position, but is this really justified? Probably not. There are examples of different CEOs, e.g. Zappo’s Tony Hsieh, who made a point of having a low salary, his primary return on his investment of time coming from the actual success of the business itself. Consider the wage distribution in your company. Is it even close to fair?

External: Beyond fair deals

Similarly, see how you are treating your customers and vendors. Large companies pride themselves in using their size to squeeze vendors, at times even ruining small businesses in the process. There is something to the economies of scale, but if we truly appreciate our vendors, why wouldn’t we want them to be paid fairly, too? The goal of a business is to make money. Sure. But what could be a higher goal? A true mission for the business?

In the end, it’s not about the profit. It’s about fulfilling a meaningful function in society in a sustainable way. This is where we might have gone wrong in the past. If you business does good, it needs to sustain itself. There doesn’t have to be a ton of extra left over. Our system of shareholder focus has ruined this idea. Instead of being a social contract that brings benefit to the community, corporations have become psychopathic people. Something is not right in this picture, and we have the ability – and responsibility to correct that.

Jesus stated that a rich person is unlikely to enter heaven (Matthew 19:24), but it might not be about being rich as much as it might be about how you got there. In an ideal world, everyone would be rich: have food, clothing, and shelter in abundance – something seventy percent of the world’s population lack each day in our current systems. We have the technology and resources to change that, the main issue we are facing is a distribution problem.

A religious business?

I don’t believe in religion in the common sense, but rather have my own definition. I am generally dubious when I see people flaunting their religion as part of their business. I think all religions have value. They are human systems. Systems that are here to help us be better humans. They are systems of ethics and aspirations. As such, each has something to offer. In the end, once you go past the exoteric opium for the masses into the more esoteric components, you will find that most of them agree on basic tenets anyway.

What is damaging our world is the separation of church and state. Not in the power game sense, but in the sense that people who are adherents of any of the religions out there can separate it from how they act in every day life. Be a greedy ass in business all week long and then go to church on Sunday and listen to a sermon on helping the poor. This does not make sense. Instead, it would make sense to include our system for meaning into our system for operating – all the way.

Jainism offers some beautiful tenets. I have only scratched the surface here. You can dig deeper yourself and see how these tenets can be applied. And looking at the success of the Jain community, it does not seem like these ideas are hindering commercial success – on the contrary. We don’t have to adopt a religion wholeheartedly to see its intrinsic values. We can choose to adopt the values for their own sake. In the case of these Jain tenets, it might just make your business a better business all around – and allow you to play a more meaningful part in this web of life we can reality.

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  3 comments for “Discovering Jainism – For Business

  1. December 20, 2014 at 20:31

    Hello Philip,

    Thank you so much for this post. I really appreciate how you have married some of the Jain philosophies and ethics to contemporary business practices. I personally love your insights on Aparigraha (non-possession) and this article leaves me thinking about the importance of values in our lives and businesses.

    I am also reading your other posts and finding great meaning in all that you write, speak and stand for.

    Thank you for the article Philip – we can’t wait to have you back in India!!

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