Bookshelf: The Kama Sutra of nonsense

Attempts to mine business wisdom from ancient Indian texts demonstrate only the futility of the endeavour.

by Michael Backman, World Business' contributing editor (Asia)
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

The US is the richest, most powerful economy the world has ever seen: GDP per capita on a purchasing power parity basis is $41,800. Compare this with chronically corrupt, underperforming India with a per capita income of just $3,800. Only now is India enjoying five minutes of economic sunshine and then only in a few sectors. So from which economy would you seek business inspiration? Hong Kong-based writer Nury Vittachi attempts to steer us to India in this book.

Business as a discipline has no great heroes from antiquity and no great epics. So that it might seem to have deep foundations like other disciplines, old texts that have nothing to do with business are mined and twisted to fit contemporary issues. Vittachi is the latest foot soldier in this questionable enterprise. So we find that "the world's first management guru was a sage who used his techniques to build an empire bigger than Western Europe". And a 16th century prince, defeated in battle, who carries off the palace treasure takes with him "what any modern executive would count as a decent-sized parachute". Vittachi carries on like this for more than 200 pages, desperate to find some business wisdom where clearly there is none.

Early on he fashions himself as a 'tour guide' and laboriously recounts stories about warrior princes and deer in the forest from texts such as Arthashastra, Bhagavad-Gita and the Kama Sutra. And when there are no texts, he refashions legends, embellishes them with detail he can't possibly know and then uses that detail to deliver trite truisms dressed up as business wisdom.

"Plan for the future, but live for the day" and "Balance is everything" is the sort of thing to expect. Some of this is worse than vacuous; it's plain wrong. "The only way to achieve a complex victory on multiple fronts is to focus purely on the present step at the present time; for life is no more or less than a series of nows." So don't waste your time in planning.

Vittachi is a good writer in a technical sense - he uses clear prose and short sentences, allowing the reader to glide effortlessly. But that's part of the problem: it means that the utter banality of his endeavours is laid out for all to see. And he is not just a tour guide. "Today, we act as if human beings live on individual islands. But in the past, they knew the truth. Humans constantly interacted with each other." Is he writing about business management or is he planning to start a cult? This thesis is undermined by his retelling of tales of murder, war and family infighting. Two pages later and he's at it again. "Discipline is a bad word today," he asserts. Is it? Says who?

Elsewhere he is dogmatic and presumptuous: "For 99% of commercial organisations, the road to riches is to build a slightly better mousetrap," he writes, before advising us not to be fooled by marketing that tells us that a car is not a car but an invention. "This is stylish advertising, but it's wrong," preaches Vittachi. "It is a car: a metallic box with a wheel at each corner." Barely can I recall having read such drivel.

Later, he is concerned for the welfare of the young Siddhartha Gautama - the Buddha - because of his wealthy upbringing at Lumbini, on the India-Nepal border, where you can see "glorious mountain tops that seem to hang in the sky". Other children who grew up with privilege also suffered personal problems, he says. "Think of Roman Emperor Caligula or even the eccentric singer Michael Jackson," he offers, rather bizarrely.

The ancient Indian king Ashoka is labelled a "rock diarist" because he erected inscribed stone columns. Several chapters on and even the concept of a diary is too hard for Vittachi's reader to grasp and so Ashoka's columns are now "a sort of stone blog". Ridiculous, dogmatic observations such as this abound. In respect of one ancient text, Vittachi opines: "Perhaps human beings really are no smarter today than they were four or five millennia ago." Two pages later, he comes up with: "We have more and more facts at our fingertips. But we actually know less and less."

The book feels like one of those mindless conversations you have with a hapless Hare Krishna because you're bored and your bus is late. Clearly, someone thought it would be interesting to see if ancient Indian texts could be contorted into something like Sun Tzu's Art of War. We now know they can't. "This book has many lessons in it," concludes Vittachi. It doesn't.

The Kama Sutra of Business: management principles from Indian classics, by Nury Vittachi, John Wiley & Sons, £9.99, ISBN: 0-470-82223-6.

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