(Interactive session on 14.11.2014)

Keynote address by Dr. Somik Raha

(Other participant speakers: Mr. Asim K. Banerjee, Mr. Paritosh                                  Bandopadhyay, Mr. R. K. Gupta, Mr. Sujit Chatterjee, Mr. S.R. Das & Mr. Gautam                            Kanjilal, Mr. Jyotirmay Bhattacharyya, Ms. Sikha Majumdar, Ms. Ratna                                  Chatterjee, Mr. A.K. Sengupta, Mr. Chayan Singha & Mr. Aditya Sen)

[Devotional song by Ms. Jayanti Dasgupta]

Anchor, Introduction & Conclusive Remarks: Asish K.Raha



Ordinarily one may find it difficult to reconcile Decision analysis, an important tool of modern management, to spirituality. The difficulty in such reconciliation arises from the fact that spirituality belongs to higher domain of thought and realization while decision analysis belongs to secular domain of business management or administration. Therefore, the above two concepts are generally believed to be incompatible, if not antithetical to each other. It is also believed that in the course of spiritual journey, one has to look for guidance of a spiritual master in whom absolute faith needs to be reposed, while the very concept of decision analysis presupposes logical analysis of various alternatives before arriving at a decision. Belief or faith has no place in decision analysis.

In view of apparent contradiction between the above two conceptual propositions, it falls for determination whether it is possible to juxtapose spiritual journey with decision analysis. If the answer is in the affirmative, it also needs to be determined whether in order to attain siritual progress, one can afford to be questioning and analytical instead of surrendering to prevailing norms or to a spiritual master.

Before we address the above issue, let us first dwell upon the concept of spirituality and decision analysis.

What makes an action meritorious

The Emperor Wu looked at his strange visitor. A bearded monk with big bulging eyes stood in front of him. He had come all the way from India and was regarded as a great teacher of Buddhism. The Emperor, eager to get an affirmation of his divine merits, asked, “How much merit have I earned for my support of Buddhism?” He was a great patron and had done a lot of public service in the name of Buddhism. The monk replied bluntly, “None. Deeds that expect worldly return may bring good karma but produce no merit whatsoever.” Emperor Wu was shocked. He asked, “Then, what is the meaning of noble truth?” The monk replied, “There is no noble truth, only emptiness.” Now annoyed, the emperor thought he’d trap this monk in his own sophistry, and asked, “Then who is standing before me?” The monk replied, “I don’t know, your majesty,” and turned around and left. This monk was the great teacher, Bodhidharma, now regarded as the one who established Zen Buddhism, and this peculiar conversation makes us question our assumptions on service.

If action driven by the motivation / expectation of some return or impact, is not meritorious, then what is meritorious action?

To find an answer, we go to an unknown time and place where the monk Kaushika is having a profound conversation with a virtuous butcher. Kaushika has been asked to seek this butcher out and learn from him. He started by expressing regret that the butcher was engaged in such a sinful profession. The butcher replied,

I have been born into this profession and could not choose it due to my circumstances. However, I bring all the virtues of renunciation, self-control and love to my work. Even though the behavior of a profession may be bad, a person in that profession may still be of good behavior. So also a person may become virtuous, even though he is a slayer of animals by profession.

Kaushika further inquired, “How shall I know what is virtuous conduct?” The butcher replied, in essence, “That which takes you closer to knowing your true nature.”

While Bodhidharma’s conversation shows us that what outwardly seems like service may not be meritorious upon examination, the butcher’s conversation shows the opposite, where, what outwardly may appear to lack merit may in fact hold the possibility of deep and authentic service. The virtuous butcher has given us a wonderful test — is our work deepening our own understanding of what our true nature is? If so, that is virtuous work and the service performed is sacred service for us.

The butcher has shown us that work should not be judged from its external appearance alone, but also the attitude with which it is performed. The butcher’s perspective is unparalleled in the philosophy of work, and is echoed as the core message of the Bhagvad Gita, where Krishna is encouraging Arjuna to fight a gruesome battle in perhaps the most incredible decision analysis dialog that has ever been recorded. Is it possible to perform work that looks ugly on the exterior and yet practice the sagely virtues of renunciation and detachment? Krishna says yes, and exhorts Arjuna to fight like a yogi who displays such attributes.

Introduction to Decision Analysis

In this backdrop, we shall begin our introduction to Decision Analysis. This field was so named by Prof. Ronald Howard at Stanford University in the 60’s. In Indian Psychology, there are four major ways to experience oneself, namely, yoga (or union) with the Intellect (Gyana), Action (Karma), Psychology (Raja) and Devotion (Bhakti). Of these, Karma Yoga is considered to have a strong link with Bhakti, as we are told to serve others as though we are serving God. This link works well only if we are theists.

Decision Analysis, for the first time, offers a link between Karma and Gyana Yoga, where we can obtain freedom from our ego by using our intellect in the context of action. There is no need for a theistic belief. We shall also see how the mathematics of Decision Analysis may even be considered to be the mathematics of Karma Yoga. These are big claims, and we need to take a deeper dive to see whether we can support them.

Cardinal Principles – A decision cannot be judged from the outcome

The first cardinal principle of decision analysis is that a decision cannot be judged from the outcome. Krishna says the same thing to Arjuna, when he says, “You are competent only in action, and not in determining outcomes. Therefore, focus on the best action you can take; and do not be attached to inaction.” Understanding the difference between decisions and outcomes is critical. For example, driving sober is a good decision, while driving drunk is a bad decision. I could drive sober, making a good decision, and reach home safe, which is a good outcome. I could also crash, which would be a bad outcome, but my decision to drive sober would still be a good one. Similarly, if I drive drunk, that would be a bad decision. I could crash, which would be a bad outcome, but even if I reach home safe (good outcome), my decision would still be bad.

A lady who had been divorced used to say, “I made a bad decision and married this guy, and now I am divorced.” After studying decision analysis, she now says, “I made a good decision marrying this guy, and then I made a good decision divorcing him.” As decisions cannot be judged from outcomes, we will have to necessarily rely on the process we use to make our decisions to judge decision quality. As it turns out, it is possible to make good decisions every time.

Sunk-Cost Principle

The second cardinal principle of decision analysis is the sunk-cost principle, which says that the past matters for learning, not for accounting. The person who can change the past has not yet been born. Therefore, counting our past investments is a fruitless exercise. We must learn from the past, but should not be anchored to it. This wonderful principle of detachment finds its way into the mathematics of decision analysis where it is mathematically illegal to include past investments in calculations of future value.

The implications of applying this principle are that the following statements would all be logical fallacies:

  1. I have invested so much in my relationship with this person, so I don’t want to let it all go to waste.
  2. I have invested so much in my relationship with this person, and I don’t want to invest any more.
  3. We have spent so much money already on this project, so we must get it to the finish line.
  4. We have spent so much money already on this project, and even though we’ll double the money we put in now, counting everything we’ve spent so far, we’ll be at a loss. So, we won’t make the investment.

The only thing that matters when making a decision at the present time is our view looking forward, not backward.

Prof Howard on Decision Analysis

In a paper assessing 20 years of Decision Analysis in the 80’s, Prof. Howard noted two wonderful things. First, that the Buddha was a great example of a person who combined a cool head with a warm heart. A cool head protected him from sentimentality while a warm heart protected him from indifference. He, like Socrates, broke things into their constituent parts to understand their essence and then put them back together to arrive at clarity of action. Buddha was a great decision analyst, next only to Krishna (in point of time).

The second wonderful thing in that paper is that it talked about who needs Decision Analysis. People like the Buddha and Lao Tzu certainly didn’t, and that is because they were not confused. It is only when we are confused that Decision Analysis is valuable to us. In fact, classes in Decision Analysis begin with the statement, “If you are a monk who lives with the attitude that every outcome is the right outcome, then there is no decision to be made and you don’t need decision analysis. But if you believe in attaining outcomes, then we don’t know of a better way than decision analysis for you to think through it.”

Just the two cardinal principles of Decision Analysis bring a breath of freedom into our lives, and when practiced diligently, bring us closer to clarity, freedom and truth. Decision Analysis does not stop there. It proposes the six elements of decision quality to help us think through our decisions. The six elements are: Framing, Alternatives, Information, Values, Integration and Commitment to Action. Let’s look at each of these, from both cool head and warm heart perspectives.

Six elements of decision quality: 1) Framing

Cool Head: A frame should neither be so big that it feels like boiling an ocean, nor should it be so small that it makes no difference to anyone. It should be actionable. For example, a person thinking of asking another person out on a date might frame a decision as “Should I ask this person out?” This is not an actionable frame, for regardless of whether the answer is a “yes” or a “no,” the decision-maker still does not know what to do next. A much better question is, “Where and when should I ask this person out?” for the question of asking someone out is philosophical and not really a decision. If our mind has brought that question up, the answer is yes, of course, provided we live in societies where a single date does not imply a long-term commitment.

Warm Heart: A frame should be meaningful to us. A date might be one way to go, but if we were to ask what we are really after, perhaps it is to meet people of the same wavelength. If that’s the case, there might be other ways to discover such people. Perhaps by taking up projects that resonate with our values.

2) Alternatives

Cool Head: Alternatives should be as distinct and feasible as possible. It is not much of a choice to pick between feasible and infeasible alternatives. We, therefore, want to be in a situation where we have to pick between multiple feasible alternatives. The temptation here is attachment to a particular alternative. In our hurry, we can end up constructing poor quality strawman alternatives that we are not really interested in just so we can drive others to the one we like. This temptation must be avoided and time must be taken to construct multiple good pathways.

Warm Heart: Alternatives should be inspiring. They should be able to take us to a deeper level within us. For instance, if I were to ask my wife, “Do I look fat in this shirt?” and she wants to respond, “It’s not the shirt, it’s you. You look fat in whatever you wear because you are fat.” What are her alternatives? This is a situation where we might be tempted to tell a so-called white lie in order to make the other person feel good. But we if we have a commitment to the whole truth, perhaps we can step it up by creating a new alternative, where my wife might say, “Are you really interested in how fat you look, or are you asking me whether I love you? If it is the latter, then please know that I do. Now, are you still interested in knowing about how fat you look?” By going a level deeper into the real question that wasn’t asked, my wife has just deepened our relationship. We always have the alternative of changing the question we’ve been asked.

3) Information

Cool Head: Is the information we seek material, that is, is it going to change our decision? If not, it is a waste of time collecting it. For instance, if you were asked to do a painful medical test, you would do well to ask your doctor, “Will the results of this test change your treatment decision one way or the other?” If the doctor says, “no, the treatment will be the same,” then the information produced by such a test has zero value. This unfortunately does happen in real life. A student once told me that his son was diagnosed with H1N1 and the doctor wanted to do a bunch of painful tests. As the student had learned Decision Analysis, he asked the doctor if the therapy would change. The doctor said no! The student refused the test, but unfortunately, due to government regulations, the doctor forced it on the child. At least the student tried.

Two more examples come from Buddha and Krishna respectively. The Buddha is so important in the history of Indian philosophy as he came in at a point where the wisdom of the Vedas (India’s ancient scriptures) was only recited mindlessly, and not lived. People were steeped in intellectual debates on what happens after death. The Buddha applied classic decision analysis with the argument that if our decision to be compassionate and to take right action does not change with information of the afterlife, then resolving that uncertainty has no value for us. We’d be better off not debating and instead practicing things we know to be of value in the present. That was a great example of the materiality principle.

In Krishna’s case, in the Gita (2.25), Krishna tells Arjuna that as it is declared that the soul is imperceptible, inconceivable and immutable, and cannot be killed or harmed, Arjuna ought not to lament on account of destroying the bodies of his opponents. And in case Arjuna believes that the soul is born, it dies and is re-born   (2.26) then also he should not lament, as for one who is born, death is certain, and for the one who dies, birth is certain, so, what is the point of lamenting over the inevitable? His conclusion – lamenting is a bad decision, no matter what information Arjuna has about the nature of the soul.

Warm Heart: Is the information we seek of a decisive nature? Does it have the juice to get us to inspire us to act immediately? An oil company executive once told me that he went to his boss showing two alternatives. One was a conventional project, while the other made a quantum leap forward in clean fuels, while being more expensive. Both projects were profitable. His boss took one look and told him, “I don’t need to see tradeoffs. If we truly can deliver on clean fuels, we should of course do the more expensive project because we are here to take the world to a better place.” And that was it.

4) Values

Cool Head: What are our preferences? What do we want, and how much do we want it? In Alice in Wonderland, we see a remarkable conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat.

Alice: I was just wondering if you could help me find my way.
Cheshire Cat: Well that depends on where you want to get to.
Alice: Oh! It really doesn’t matter as long as…
Cheshire Cat: Then it really doesn’t matter which way you go.
Alice: … as long as I get somewhere.
Cheshire Cat: Oh! you’re sure to do that if you keep walking.

Prof. Ron Howard puts it nicely – the question here is, “Do you want to get what you want, or do you want to want what you get?” In the West, we are in the business of impact and good outcomes; so without admitting that it is the right thing to do, if we must play the game, then we need clarity on our preferences.

Logic can help us avoid simple mistakes. For instance, if we prefer mango over chocolate ice-cream, and chocolate over vanilla ice-cream, then we must prefer mango over vanilla ice-cream, otherwise, we will get tangled up in circles.

Warm Heart: The question here is “Who am I?” or “What do I stand for?” and it has to do with discovering our noble purpose. A little story to illustrate this is in order. In junior college, I was at that age where boys are discovering the pressure to be macho, especially in co-ed schools. For some reason or the other, perhaps over petty insults, I found myself standing eyeball to eyeball with a classmate. We were both daring each other to strike first. The whole class was watching. In that situation, I paused. In that pause, I thought about two things. First, there would be no winner in this fight. Both of us would be hurt. From the cool head perspective, I preferred not to be hurt. From the warm heart perspective, this was not the person I wanted to be. I did not want my friend to be hurt either. That resulted in a completely novel alternative, which I offered up, “Hey look, if you attack me, I may not be able to beat you, but I am pretty sure we will both end up hurting each other. What’s the point of fighting if we can’t win? Why not just go back to our seats?” It didn’t take my friend even half a second to respond, “Good idea!” and off we both went, feeling thankful and silly at the same time.

5) Integration

Cool Head: Are we using the right logic to put together our decision? Are we making associative logic errors? This is a very common mistake. For example, most people would agree that their chance of a hemophiliac being male (usually very high as almost all hemophiliacs are male) is not the same as their chance of a male being a hemophiliac (usually very low as hemophilia is a rare disease). However, we make all kinds of subtle mistakes in other areas. For instance, we think Jainism is about non-violence and vegetarianism, when in fact, Mahavira talked about the entire universe being alive. Because he felt it, he could not get himself to hurt other beings. There came a point where it was clear he could not die – his cells would just be used up to support the life of other beings, and as the whole universe was alive, he’d still be in it, just not in his embodied ego-form. His followers, however, reduce this rich philosophy into non-violence and vegetarianism, which, unfortunately, does not guarantee them reaching the conclusion of aliveness by their own experience.

Another common mistake is to think Gandhi’s legacy is one of non-violent action. While he did experiment very heavily with it, the reason for it was his absolute focus on purifying his heart. As his heart got purer, he felt motivated to manifest it in action as well. However, in our present time, it is not uncommon to see people emphasizing non-violent action and think they are on Gandhi’s path without paying any attention to the inferno inside. For example, when Bush visited Stanford during the Iraq war, there was a massive protest that was organized. A functionary from Sarvodaya (Gandhi’s organization) was visiting us at that time, and he was invited to participate in their act of “civil disobedience” (blocking Bush’s path). He asked a simple question, “Do you love or respect Bush?” The students were shocked, and said, “Of course not!” His simple question was, “How then can you hope to change his heart with your actions?”

The logic of decision analysis is also the home of its mathematics, and here, some attention is merited. First, the tools of decision analysis, prima facie, appear similar to those in economics. However, under the covers, there are big differences. For instance, if you face an uncertain deal with a 50-50 chance of getting Rs. 100 versus nothing, the economists (and statisticians) will have you calculate an “expected value” of Rs. 50. The problem with this calculation is that there is nothing expected about Rs. 50. You will in-fact never get that amount – the deal is structured to get you either Rs. 100 or nothing. Then why should we use a highly misleading term like that? The economists pride themselves in being scientists and avoiding philosophy; so they couldn’t care less and would call this nitpicking. However, decision analysis requires us to make a strong commitment to the whole truth, and that extends to not willfully misleading our minds and the minds of others if we can help it. Therefore, decision analysis provides an alternate term for the same mathematical operation of probability-weighted averages, “certain equivalent,” which is exactly what it says. It is the amount that if I had it for certain (in the example, Rs. 50), I would be indifferent between the certain amount and the uncertain deal. This is much better language than expected value, as the philosophical practice here is to stop making expectations. In fact, contributions like this are precisely what makes the logic of decision analysis work as the mathematics of karma yoga. For, practicing it reorients our minds to think that we have already accrued the certain equivalent before the outcome becomes evident. We thus become free and ahead, ready to make the next decision well. Every decision made in this manner adds to our equanimity. It is remarkable that an accounting method could turn into a method to develop equanimity! And even more ironic that the economists completely miss this and go in the exact opposite direction!

Warm Heart: While logic appeals to our minds, a powerful narrative appeals far more than dry logic to our hearts. We need a good story that carries our logic home to us, and to our communities. The Hazelden Foundation, a non-profit organization that focuses on serving those with addiction problems, had figured out that they needed to overhaul their facilities to be more welcoming. Money at non-profits is always scarce, and the staff was initially asking why that money could not be used to give everyone raises. The dry logic wasn’t sufficient to get buy in. It was only when the staff understood the narrative of dignity of the clients they were serving that they agreed to try it. When one facility was transformed to be more welcoming, and made a difference to their clients, the staff themselves asked for other facilities to also receive these changes.

When the Stanford police department wanted to reduce bicycle accidents on campus, they realized they had to find a way to reach out to bicyclists. Police officers were asked to cite bicyclists when they broke the law. This is something that officers don’t like doing. However, the narrative that drove it home was that officers were also educators, and in the process of writing the citation, they would get an opportunity to interact and educate the students about safe bicycling. Moreover, as safety was the goal and not citation, students were allowed to waive the fine by attending a bicycle safety workshop run at the police department in collaboration with the department of transportation. The narrative of being an educator helped officers see the logic behind their work and commit to it. For students, it was a transformative experience that began with resentment initially upon being cited, and changed to gratitude after the workshop where they realized that in-spite of being considered intelligent, they were taking stupid risks with their lives, and someone else actually cared about them.

6) Commitment

Cool Head: Making high quality commitments is a big challenge in our lives, as this is not taught in high school. A high quality commitment is different from an order. In an order, there is only one party committed to action – the one who gives the order. In a high quality commitment, both parties, the requestor and the promisor, are committed to the action involved. A high quality request is one where the terms of fulfillment are clear, where the requestor is actually interested in what is being requested, and where the promisor has the freedom to decline. A high quality promise is one where the promisor is actually interested in keeping the promise, and understands what is required to fulfill it. For requestors who have more power, it becomes their responsibility to ensure that the promisor is capable of delivering on what is requested when the promise is being made. The promisor has the responsibility to get back to the requestor should something change in their situation which makes fulfillment difficult, and request a renegotiation of the commitment. Clear action planning is also an important part of the activity here. If there is no action, then the rest of the analysis is just entertainment.

Leadership, Followership, Laddership: The heart involves understanding that sometimes, we need to stand tall for the right decision even when others oppose us. That is an act of leadership, but unfortunately, leadership is much too associated with brilliant, macho alpha males. The kind of leadership that we don’t pay much attention to is often called servant leadership, or laddership (you can treat me like a ladder and use me to step up, and similarly, offer to be my ladder). For example, when at the height of the civil rights movement, when Martin Luther King decided they would stay nonviolent, his colleagues protested. He fired them back and even though he was isolated, refused to budge. That act of moral courage saved the civil rights movement from devolving into mass riots, and today we look at the struggle of the blacks with so much respect.

Gandhi, also the idol of King, was a strong believer in his own conscience and in the goodness of others – if anyone tried to convince him otherwise, he would stand firm and hold the space for these values. It is because of his convictions that the riots in Bengal and elsewhere could stop. The story goes that he just walked through active killing scenes with no more than 25 people in a procession, singing God’s name, and people would stop killing and calm down. For Gandhi, that was a considered decision after analyzing the logical conclusion of his starting beliefs. Then, all that was left to do was to die for these beliefs, which he was always prepared to do, and ultimately did. Commitment to action was a huge thing with Gandhi – he was known to be that rare person who actually took action on the things he held dear.

Another story of commitment to action comes from my grandmother. She was by nature simple and had a strong commitment to see God in others and love them as they are. One day, she heard a knock on her door. She was a mother of pre-teens at that time. A neighborhood kid was at the door, and he breathlessly uttered, “Come quick. There’s been a fight. Your younger son’s hand has been broken.” She rushed to attend to her 10-year-old, who had to be taken to the hospital in great pain. After getting a cast on his hand, she came home late that evening with her son, and decided to pay a personal visit to the offending boy who had broken her son’s hand. She knocked at their door, and was told by the father, “Our boy is not home.” Pushing the door open, she calmly said, “I know he is here, and I am here to see him.” Sure enough, the boy stood trembling inside. The parents were terrified, not knowing what drama would unfold. She looked at the boy and said, “I know you have received a lot of scolding from everyone today. I am here to give you some love. Come.” And she hugged him. The boy melted in her arms, howling with tears. His parents broke down, saying in between sobs, “We have not seen a mother like this.” And in that breakdown, a great service was performed, one that would form deep roots of love and community of a kind that is hard to describe. In the space that she created for herself, she must have connected to her commitment to love, but it was acting on it that made love come alive in her life.

Decision analysis in spiritual life – an integral approach

Questions may be raised as to why a spiritual person should analyze decisions. We have already noted that for those who want what they get, there is no decision to be made, as there is no confusion. It is important, however, to be authentic about this and check whether we have truly surrendered in that way to something higher than us. If not, then decision analysis offers us a great way to practice equanimity and purify ourselves. However, a flip side is also true. It is the observation of the ancients in India that one cannot make spiritual progress without being scientific, and vice versa. It is not just about science and spirituality being compatible – one cannot happen without the other. By science, what is meant is an unwavering commitment to the whole truth of the present moment. Seeing science and spirituality as a duality is largely a result of industrialization-era thinking. Eastern approaches have always been integrated – the poet, scientist and philosopher are one and the same. Consider for instance the poetic couplet,

Purnamadaha Purnamidam Purnaat Purnamudachyate
Purnasya Purnamaadaya Purnameva Vashishyate

That is whole. This is whole. From that wholeness comes this wholeness.
When wholeness is taken away from wholeness, what remains is wholeness.

Now, the symbol for wholeness is a circle, which is also the symbol for zero, or nothing. What happens when we interpret the same couplet with the language of nothing?

That is nothing. This is nothing. From nothing comes nothing.
When nothing (zero) is taken away from nothing (zero), what remains is nothing (zero).

Look at this for a moment. “From nothing comes nothing” is the foundation of modern materialistic science. The last line of this couplet gives us the formula of 0-0 = 0, or the foundation of mathematics! This is an example of poetry merging with philosophy as also science.

Even in the west, when people took integrated approaches to life, the renaissance became possible.

Why does Decision Analysis hold so much promise for us? It gives us a modern secular language to practice the essential elements of truth and detachment that are to be seen in all major world traditions. People practicing this in business may be engrossed in the most material of decisions, but if they practice detachment through Decision Analysis, they will end up purifying themselves, even if the outer results seem materialistic. That is a big evolutionary step forward in the spiritual thinking of humankind! Never before has this link between karma yoga and gyana yoga been worked out in this way.

Finally, having painted a rosy picture for Decision Analysis, we must also understand caveats. If Hitler had DA in his hands, he might have killed twice the number of people that he did. We can use DA to plan assassinations effectively, and we can also use DA to do great service for humankind. It is therefore incumbent upon us to realize that DA does not give us a moral apparatus. It is more like an adding machine, totally amoral. Therefore, we need to do the hard work to form our personal ethical code thoughtfully, and also reflect on how much of our personal ethical code we want to impose on others by force (i.e. our legal system). These two aspects are essential components in a DA training program without which it would be irresponsible to teach DA.

Concluding remarks

Let us now address the following two posers we raised in the Introduction: 1) whether it is possible to juxtapose spiritual journey with decision analysis, and 2) if the answer is in the affirmative, whether in order to attain siritual progress, one can afford to be questioning and analytical instead of surrendering to prevailing norms or to a spiritual master.

As has been pointed out above, for those who have surrendered themselves to something higher, be it their spiritual master or their higher self, decision analysis or any worldly matter means precious little. But for those who are on spiritual path, the prescription is for self-analysis which in other words means decision analysis. The case in point is verses 5 and 6 of chapter 6 of the Bhagvad Gita where Sri Krishna proclaims as follows:

“Let man uplift the self (ego) by the self; let the self not be degraded. Indeed the self is its own friend; and its own enemy as well.

For him whose self (ego) has been conquered by the Self (soul), the Self is the friend of the self; but verily, the Self behaves inimically toward the self that is not subdued.”

This highly loaded statement in the Gita strongly suggests that a man in pursuit of spiritual path ought to be constantly wary of his / her inflated and irrational ego which needs to be suppressed, overcome and subdued by a rational and analytical mind. Where alternatives exist, decision analysis helps in choosing the right alternative according to one’s objective, spiritual or material. And as we have seen, it is one of the fundamental principles in both spiritual and secular spheres that the decision should not be driven by the expectation of a desired outcome. This is in conformity with the spiritual canon of the Gita: “Karmenyevadhikaraste Ma faleshu kadachana” menaing that “You have the right of action, not to the result” (which is not under your control). We, therefore, do not find any difficulty or incongruity in the juxtaposition of spirituality and decision analysis.

As for the second poser, it would be reasonable to conclude that one of the essential pre-requisites of spiritual growth is self-introspection or a questioning mind. Even where seekers of liberation choose to surrender to a spiritual master, they should not shun self-introspection and an analytical mind. If Arjuna did not have doubts or a questioning mind, there would have been no Bhagvad Gita. Similarly, if the disciples of the Buddha had no questions in their mind, there would have been no Buddhism. Surrender to a superior master presupposes a conviction in the mind of the one who surrenders that the other person is not only superior for reason of his / her wisdom but is also fit to be the master. This is precisely happened with Arjuna who eventually surrendered to Sri Krishna, but only after all his doubts were resolved.

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  1. RKGupta says:

    An excellent presentation by dear Somik. He has dealt with the subject thoroughly and analytically. Only one small point I would like to add is about the ‘objective’ with which a decision is taken. That also needs to be analysed and considered. The anecdote relating to Lord Krishna breaking His vow not to raise weapon in the war when He sees Bhishma fighting mercilessly and at the point of defeating Pandavas, Arjun feeling helpless, is important. He did not hesitate even for a moment in breakingr His vow but His sole concern was larger welfare of the humanity and the triumph of truth. The second aspect is constant evaluation and evolution of the decision. As one rises higher up the plane, one sees more and more of the horizon and the reality starts manifesting more and more clearly. There is, therefore, no shying away from changing the decision, if that is the need of the time.And lastly, whether decision making was influenced by selfish motive? If not such a decision, I think would help make spiritual progress, because it would be devoid of ego.
    Again an excellent and well researched presentation.

    • akraha1948 says:

      Guptaji, You have very correctly addressed the issue by going to the root of decision analysis. It’s the objective that really matters. Pertinently, Somik has pointed out that had Hitler applied the principles of decision analysis, he would have ended up by killing many more victims. He would have perhaps exterminated entire community targeted by him. Decision analysis, from this perspective, is nothing more than a tool. However, when we use this tool to evaluate comparative values of the alternatives in an objective manner, keeping in view the larger good of the largest number of people, or for that matter, our own growth or progress (not at others’ expense), decision analysis will surely help us in making spiritual progress, as you have very correctly pointed out. The thrust here is on analytical mind that does not act blindly, or get influenced by selfish consideration. But the question is: should there be any such caveat conditioning a scientific study? Or, decision analysis will achieve the same goal without any such caveat?

  2. RKGupta says:

    I do not know how to say: ‘like father like son’ or ‘like son like father’. Both great orators and committed to go deep in the subject.

  3. Kushal Shah says:

    Hi Somik, thanks for this wonderful article! Here are some comments:

    You said, “And as we have seen, it is one of the fundamental principles in both spiritual and secular spheres that the decision should not be driven by the expectation of a desired outcome.” This is a very subtle statement! Would you agree that the moment we indulge in decision analysis, there has to be expectation of a particular outcome? As you have also said, if all outcomes are equally good, then there is no point in decision analysis. But the crucial point is that this outcome should not be “desired”. In other words, it is alright to expect a certain outcome but the main point is that we should not be the least perturbed if the outcome turns out to be different from our expectation. Would you agree?

    You said, “This is precisely happened with Arjuna who eventually surrendered to Sri Krishna, but only after all his doubts were resolved.” I am not sure if all of Arjuna’s doubts were resolved. I think he was primarily dazzled by Krishna’s brilliance and this is what gave him the courage to fight. After the war is over, Arjuna indeed says this to Krishna (as per Anu Gita), “O you of mighty arms! O you whose mother is Devaki! when the battle was about to commence, I became aware of your greatness, and that divine form of yours. But that, O Kesava! which through affection (for me) you explained before, has all disappeared, O tiger-like man! from my degenerate mind.” And to this Krishna replies, “From me, O son of Pritha! you heard a mystery, and learnt about the eternal (principle), about piety in (its true) form, and about all the everlasting worlds. It is excessively disagreeable to me, that you should not have grasped it through want of intelligence. And the recollection (of it) now again is not possible (to me). Really, O son of Pandu! you are devoid of faith and of a bad intellect.”

    • somikraha says:

      Kushal wrote:
      “Would you agree that the moment we indulge in decision analysis, there has to be expectation of a particular outcome? As you have also said, if all outcomes are equally good, then there is no point in decision analysis. But the crucial point is that this outcome should not be “desired”. In other words, it is alright to expect a certain outcome but the main point is that we should not be the least perturbed if the outcome turns out to be different from our expectation. Would you agree?”

      This is a great question, and yes, I agree. The whole point of Decision Analysis is to do the best we can and move on. The math involves the calculation of value delivered, which tells our mind that we are already ahead on account of having made the best decision, BEFORE the outcome happens. The goal is equanimity, and by not obsessing about the outcome, we are free to make the next best decision.

      On the Arjuna question, I think clarity is contextual and temporal. 🙂 In my life, there are times when I am incredibly clear, followed by confusion, followed by clarity again, and so on. The confused moments do not necessarily imply that the clarity received earlier was fake, or that I wasn’t completely convinced about something. Our minds are constantly evolving, and as long as there is life and mind, there will be disturbances. The great yogis I suppose are able to keep clear all through, but for the rest of us, there seem to be ups and downs, much like Arjuna.

      • Kushal Shah says:

        It’s interesting to see that you have clubbed Arjuna with ‘rest of us’. I thought Krishna would deliver his Gita only to a great yogi. 🙂

        I find Arjuna’s later confusion a bit problematic since Krishna is supposed to have granted him Divya Darshan after which all doubts should cease. Otherwise, what’s the point of God vision? In Sadhak Sanjeevani, Ramsukhdasji does say that mere God vision doesn’t lead to spiritual growth. But then.. What else does lead to the goal?

  4. somikraha says:

    Kushal, first, the story of Arjuna that you are citing is not part of the original narrative of the Mahabharata (as brought out by the Bhandarkar Institute), so its authenticity is in question. Second, if Arjuna is the only one who can use Krishna’s wisdom, or is a chosen one or of a chosen tribe, then the Gita is not of much universal use. A practical test I have when reading such books is if it were proven the Mahabharata and the Gita never happened, would I stop applying the wisdom of the Gita? If the answer is yes, then the value of such wisdom is highly limited and based on a personal faith context, which makes the wisdom useful only as long as the faith lasts. On the other hand, if the answer is no, then the wisdom is likely invaluable, universal and timeless. For me, it does not matter who Arjuna was, or whether there is any historical validity to the Gita. When life’s easy games are over, and the hard games begin, I am in Gita land, dealing with my own desires of wanting to look nice as opposed to upholding my deepest stands around what I claim to value.

    I resonate a lot with Ramsukhdasji’s comment – a great teacher I know once shared her story of feeling her kundalini rising. Excited, she reported it to her teacher and grandfather. His response, “Go make some tea.” By not paying any attention, he prevented her getting distracted and waylaid by these special experiences. That speaks a lot to me – in the karma yoga tradition, the emphasis is on the journey of practice and not on attainment. When I was younger, I didn’t understand what the monks meant when they said they were not after enlightenment – they simply wanted to come back and serve. Now I realize what an ideal it is (also to be found in the Bodhisattvas). Tagore writes extensively about this in his landmark book “Sadhana” – where freedom lies not in eliminating all boundaries and limits; rather freedom is expressed through the limits we impose on ourselves. It is only through limitation that meaning is possible.

    • Kushal Shah says:

      > the story of Arjuna that you are citing is not part of the original narrative of the Mahabharata
      > (as brought out by the Bhandarkar Institute), so its authenticity is in question.

      Gita 11.5 onwards has a clear mention of the divya darshan. As for Arjuna’s confusion, please see the first few paragraph(s) in these links:

      > Second, if Arjuna is the only one who can use Krishna’s wisdom,
      > or is a chosen one or of a chosen tribe, then the Gita is not of much universal use.

      I certainly agree! But of all people in the Mahabharata story, Krishna chose Arjuna to impart the Gita which is considered to be the highest philosophical discourse in the entire history of mankind. Even if we don’t bother about its historicity, the event must make sense in the context of the story. Mahabharata is no ordinary epic and its writer is no ordinary person. So Arjuna must be the fittest person among all characters of Mahabharata to receive this knowledge. And now if such a person can get so confused even after having received divya darshan, it raises several questions that need to be addressed.

      > I didn’t understand what the monks meant when they said they were not
      > after enlightenment – they simply wanted to come back and serve.

      Such monks are very few in number. I have actually never met anyone who says this openly and follows it honestly.

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