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Concluding Essay

Published on: March 29, 2022, 2:23 p.m.
In essence, I do exist. But, WHY?
  • India, as early as 800 BC, granted legal personhood to guild-like Sreni that operated in the public interest

By Ajit Jhangiani. The author is alumnus, Harvard Business School

Though I can sink into much debate about my life having any meaning, I do know that my life experience is short, and sometimes unexpectedly even shorter. Within this brief experience, WHAT ought I to do, and HOW? How would I like to be remembered? What ought to be my legacy? Did I make a difference, possibly even move a needle, any needle? Did my existence have any value at all? In modern day terms, what was my impact?

 Before answering that question, I ask: which came first, this existence or its essence? Assisting me are philosophers Sartre and Camus, but then even they differ starkly on this. In Sartre’s (bleak) cosmos, first I exist, become conscious of my existence, and only then am I (condemned) to try and forge my own identity that I seek – my essence. As a free and responsible agent, I determine my own development toward this, through acts of my will, and this then determines HOW I act.

Now, is this thinking also true of corporates? Well, is a corporate a person? Yes, corporate personhood is an accepted legal notion. Corporate is a person, just like its separate, but associated, human persons (owners, managers, employees, etc). So, corporate has legal rights, and responsibilities, as enjoyed by any natural person. Conscious of this personal existence, does corporate also try and seek its own essence? Does it ask, ‘WHO AM I? WHY DO I EXIST? WHAT do I do with this life? HOW do I do that?’ Is this even the correct order of these questions?

As one such corporate (person), I do indeed enjoy some perks provided by society such as limited liability but these are balanced by economic and legal obligations, and certain responsibilities to society. This is the corporate person’s Social Contract that CSR helps elucidate.

As a corporate person who is cognisant of my CSR contract, and wanting to fulfil the embedded social responsibilities in this contract, ought I not make available, and even leverage, all my corporate assets/capabilities/strengths in developing strategies that successfully provide the necessary social good for societal needs? But, HOW do I balance these with also investing in more profitable ventures, ones much needed for my sustainability and longevity? HOW much risk ought I to expose myself to in such a pursuit? Is it OK to lose money in the short term if society benefits from my actions in the long term? 

Of course, I always want to do the best I can, but HOW do I Know I am doing such good, how do I analyse my social activity, how do I use enterprise type metrics, which I am more familiar with, for measuring this alleged social good?

CSR does want to help me here. So, sometimes painfully, relentlessly, and petulantly, CSR questions me, the corporate person, by suggesting I first ask the question WHY I am here. CSR says: ‘If indeed you do exist, and are conscious of it, what is the self-essence that you have decided on?’

Since I have accepted that I am a free agent, HOW do I first decide this WHY of my corporate person existence from my own free will? As a corporate, in what way am I going to deliver upon my vision and mission and my embedded responsibilities?  Even more so, how do I align this WHY, this purpose, with the individual purposes of my partners: founders, promoters, management, shareholders, vendors, government, community, families, etc? 

Mark Twain had said: ‘The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out WHY.” Fyodor Dostoevsky said: “The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”

To this point, and given the current rightful prioritising of DEI, Jackie Robinson (first African American to play in major league baseball) comes to mind. He had suggested that a life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives.

Ramdas, aka Richard Albert, Harvard professor of psych in the 60s, who came to India in search of a less temporary higher consciousness, had concluded that life in its entirety is all relationships. So, isn’t how I deal with all my relationships, my entire life, determined by what my essence is, my WHY?

Our Indian heritage, our culture, our very nature, provide many suggestions on such subjects. As early as 800BC, India granted similar legal personhood to guild-like śreṇī that operated in the public interest. Most Indians do give. There are many names we have for such charity and goodness. Daan, Zagat, Tithe, a helping hand, love…and many more.

Our Mother Teresa said: “True love is love that causes us pain, that hurts, and yet brings us joy, which is why we must pray to God and ask Him to give us the courage to love.” Often when asked how much I should give, the response is ‘Give till it hurts’. Azim Premji said: “I strongly believe that those of us who are privileged to have wealth, should contribute significantly to try and create a better world for the millions who are far less privileged.”

Tata Trusts owns two thirds of Tata Sons shares.  Including this WHY in strategy, the HOW, Devi Shetty has brought the cost of a heart bypass down from an already competitive $2,000 to $1,200; Arvind Eye, Akhand Jyoti, and more, are providing cataract surgeries for $50, letting many who are blind see again. Akshay Patra delivers around two million free midday meals daily to schoolchildren. The list of such Indian largesse and competitiveness in providing loving care is long and commendable. It makes us severely proud. We are India, a nation second to none, do we see this?

Circling back, how do I find my WHY? Carl Jung said: “Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside; awakes.” Buddha’s awakening earned him the title ‘The Enlightened One’. He called this awakening the beginning (the end Nirvana).

Like many others including Mohammed and Jesus, his life was a persistence pursuit of transcendence over separateness, of merging our separateness (ego) with the ONE, that collective consciousness within which all experience exists. All spiritual leaders urge us to do so. As did Buddha, they all confirmed that life is short, so work on this diligently.

Currently, there has appeared a more appropriate new word, WOKE ie awakened to that which separates, as a person alert to injustice and discrimination in society, especially racism, though it also applies to sectarianism, gender identity, class differences, etc. Hooray for the recent Oscars in Hollywood that celebrated Black and Latino colours, LGBTQ sensibilities, disabilities (deaf actor was voted the best) etc. Empathy ruled

So, WHO am I? To help answer this, once again, we look inside ourselves, and attempting to answer this age-old question, my first step would be to start moving from the head towards the heart.

Can we, as India’s elite and successful corporate persons all over the world, and with pride and respect for our spiritual legacies, accelerate our own individual awakening and act in the interest of all, the public and society as a whole? Can we develop our own Indian corporate person WOKE, individually, and more importantly, do this TOGETHER?

And as we are WOKE, will a day come when we transcend all do good titles such as Charity, Philanthropy, Social Enterprise, CSR, Creating Shared Value, shareholder/stakeholder distinctions, SDGs, etc, and settle on a singular title, one that distinguishes us as a collective (awakened) ONE?

Yes, life is short. As Robert Frost’s poem, a copy of which was on Jawaharlal Nehru’s desk, read: ‘The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.  But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep.’

And just before I do inevitably sink into that deep peaceful sleep, how, at that moment, will I measure my life?  Will I be able to say: “Yes, I did understand my essence and did successfully answer the WHY of my corporate person existence. I fought valiantly to view all as ONE with no distinctions. And towards that aim I did my very best to answer the next questions of WHAT and HOW.”

And where is THAT non-differentiating ONENESS we seek? It has always been within us, patiently waiting to be recognised and accepted, to be awakened to. For THAT is US, ALL is THAT, it is who we always were, always are, and always will be, ONE. THAT AWESOME ONE!

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