A recent article titled, Business vs. Ethics: The India Tradeoff? written by students from Wharton’s Lauder Institute and published in Knowledge at Wharton, has drawn criticism. It seemed to suggest that the Indian epics have characters who behave in ways that corrupt individuals could interpret to justify their own actions. In response to this article, Aseem Shukla, cofounder of the Hindu American Foundation, and Rishi Bhutada, member of the Foundation’s executive council, argue below that the epics are actually upholders of morality.

Today’s global business headlines are replete with a surreal litany of scandal. As those enterprises that are “too large to fail” do just that, it has also become clear that governments too often play the dual role of willing benefactor and, in the case of many politicians, beneficiary. And as the same headlines will concur, the ruinous corruption that stands at the nexus of business and government transcends national boundaries, ethnicity and religion.

Scandal, corruption and greed are not uncommon bedfellows to business and politics in the U.S. — from AIG and Lehman Brothers, which fell prey to their pathological excess in credit default swaps, to MF Global’s implosion (with a former senator at the helm) and Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. The massive accounting frauds at Olympus in Japan, and the Italian company Parmalat earlier, bring home the universality of ethical lapses that plague industry.

In the article “Business vs. Ethics: The Indian Tradeoff?” the authors posit that multinational managers seeking returns on investment in India must realize that a different, dubious ethical norm pervades business there. “Slicing through bureaucracy, inadequate infrastructure and chaotic environments demands a unique genius — one that sometimes neglects Western ethical norms,” they write.

Leaving aside a substantive discussion endeavoring to define “Indian” and “Western” ethical norms, few would dispute the contention that doing business in India requires a familiarity with structural, hierarchical and cultural norms. Whether these cultural and contextual structures are unique only to India, or attributable to post-colonial, post-globalization or other societal realities is open to debate, but the authors wandered into a far more provocative postulation in a sub-section entitled, “Of Cultural Contexts and Ethical Equilibriums.”

Ostensibly to give context to what ails India Inc. — its ethical malaise — the article turns to Hinduism’s greatest epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The former, a beloved poem of more than 50,000 lines dating back several thousand years, is held sacred by a billion Hindus as the life story of an incarnation of God, Lord Rama. Idealized as the archetypal son, brother and eventual king, Rama’s rise, tribulations, victories and sorrows are seen through the prism of his consistency in nobility and his dharma, or righteous action. The latter, the Mahabharata, is four times as long as the Ramayana and celebrated as the repository of the Bhagavad Gita, or Divine Song, considered by many Hindus to be the direct revelation of Lord Krishna, an incarnation that succeeded Rama. The authors similarly indict the 2,500-year-old treatise on statecraft and leadership attributed to Kautilya, the Arthashastra, as complicit in India’s ethical failings.

The authors point to Lord Krishna’s tactical abridgement of the existing rules of war to goad Arjuna to vanquish an unarmed adversary — who, it should be remembered, had not surrendered. There are other incidents in the Mahabharata, too, where Lord Krishna, Arjuna and his protagonist family resort to questionable means to accomplish their very justifiable end — defeating Duryodhana, a most treacherous and vengeful ruler.

The article’s authors argue that episodes and vignettes within these epics, where even the characters endowed with divine birth rely on guile and trickery to ensure humanity’s victory over evil forces, mean that such tactics are normative to Indian society. If the Gods could take recourse to chicanery, the argument goes, then expect the same from Indians in the business world.

But even leaving aside the religious significance of the epics, this reductive analysis, bereft of a rooting in Hindu philosophy, is astounding. The hoary expanse of the epics, traversing several millennia of time and space, are perhaps the most influential scriptures in the Hindu tradition. How the epics and other ancient treasures are interpreted is predicated, of course, on the understanding and spiritual inclination of the reader.

After a thorough reflection upon the message of this epic, many would conclude the converse of what the authors presume. Indeed, as Gurcharan Das, a noted author and former CEO of Procter & Gamble India, writes in his own passionate meditation on the great epic in his book, The Difficulty of Being Good — On the Subtle Art of Dharma: The Mahabharata is clearly uncomfortable with Krishna’s conduct during the war. This explains, in part, why the mood of the epic now swings downward. There may have been good reasons why Krishna had to do what he did to win — good had to defeat evil — but the epic does not believe that the ends justify the means. It does not approve of the breaking of the rules of warfare. It does not believe a dharmayuddha, “just war,” can be fought unjustly.

 The epics are very clear that the laws of Karma are absolute and relentless. Every action must bear consequences to the deed. Not only do Arjuna and his brothers see the annihilation of all their children during and after the war, but even Lord Krishna’s progeny die out after a spasm of fratricide. The message of the scriptures is dissonant with India’s contemporary ethical conundrums.

 Rather than being seen as a perverse rationale for ethically suspect business practices, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita within — a climactic conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjuna — are actually celebrated by management gurus as a primer on morality in business, karma capitalism. The concept of karma yoga is encapsulated here — that managers and workers must perform righteous action, but without attachment to the result. Profits result from good karma, the Bhagavad Gita proclaims, and should be shared by those who shared in those efforts.

 The Ramayana, too, where Mahatma Gandhi proclaimed he took his leadership lessons from, is often cited as an inspiration to ideal business practices. As Vivek Mansingh, former country manager of Dell India R&D, wrote: “The importance of emotional intelligence, which is an embodiment of motivation, empathy and social skills, increases as one goes up the management chain…. It is in this … that I recognize a similarity with the Ramayana.” And while Kautilya’s Arthashastra includes the wiliest tactics for successful statecraft, scholars know the realities of Kautilya’s times — he was advising his protégé, the great Chandragupta Maurya, during an unstable time of Macedonian and Persian invasions, when the very unity of an Indic nation-state was at risk. Kautilya was the father of realpolitik, perhaps, but it is a fundamental error to see [his teachings as a] rationalization of corruption or ethical failures.

 Instead, tomes have been written on Kautilya’s celebrated aphorisms of management, and only recently did this forum feature M.V. Rajeev Gowda of the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, taking a different view of the Arthashastra. “Corruption has certainly existed in India historically; Kautilya, in his Arthashastra, discusses how to combat it,” Gowda wrote, in diametric contrast to a perspective that would see corruption in the modern business milieu as somehow sanctioned in that work.

 That India’s politico-economic life is infested by a culture of lax ethical standards is demonstrably true; to contend that the Hindu epics and ancient texts inform this deficit is equally myopic. This tendency to broadly impugn religious scriptures, or construct a normative cultural paradigm assailing a particular community and its traits, is an intellectually lazy path taken before. Suketu Mehta, a well-known Indian-American author was excoriated for his collective indictment of South Asians and the community’s “pursuit of success and money at any cost” in his depiction of Raj Rajaratnam [founder of Galleon Group] and his conviction for insider trading.

 The Anna Hazare-led awakening of Indian civil society demonstrates that condemnation of public sector corruption — and by extension, that of the Indian business-political complex — invokes a hypernorm model of business ethics. As Wharton’s Thomas Dunfee and Thomas Donaldson argued in their book Ties That Bind, the proscription of corruption in the writings of all major world religions, including Hinduism, is one of many sources of ethical behavior, so that the insistence for transparent business practice is a hypernorm.

 Having only just repudiated the derogatory epithet “Hindu rate of growth” that once defined India’s notoriously anemic economy, allegedly hamstrung by Hindu nihilism, many Hindus will reject any attempt to define corruption as a religio-culturally inspired reality in Indian society. Corruption and ethical failings are far too prevalent in contemporary India — but rather than being informed by Hindu scriptures, the scourge attests to how far society has diverged from them.

Additional reading:

 Temples, Townships and Schools: India’s Philanthropic Legacy

 Wharton’s Philip Nichols: ‘We Have to Line up Incentives So People Don’t Act Corruptly’

 Capital Plight: What Drives Corruption in India?