Linking Indian traditional wisdom with modernity

An enlightening interview with Shri Raghu Ananthanarayanan on the relevance of Indic knowledge in the world today.

Linking Indian traditional wisdom with modernity

Raghu Ananthanarayanan is a management consultant who has studied yoga in great depth under the tutelage of masters such as Yogacharya Krishnamacharya. His perseverance to find the essence of our great teachings and enquire into its relevance today is very inspirational as his students will testify. “Janani Janma-bhoomi-scha Swargadapi Gariyasi” – mother and the land of my birth are more precious than heaven, pretty much sums up his dedication to the Indic cause. The core of his approach to teaching Yoga is based on the Krishnamacharya tradition though he has brought in aspects of experiential learning and introspection that make it contemporary and accessible. He has published a very well received book called “Learning Through Yoga” to illustrate this approach. Through his books and organisational work, he is opening the doors of ancient wisdom to the modern context.

1. From a background in western education like most Indians and with a degree in Engineering, tell us what made you turn towards the Indic path, was your family firmly entrenched in the Dharmic way of life?

The 60s when I was in college was a time of great effervescence all over the world. In IIT we had our own serious debates on the emerging issues of environment, the Indian reality the world order and so on. I was very lucky to be drawn into the small group of us who were guided by Dharampalji during this very impressionable stage. We were sure we did not want to go abroad, but what was the right thing to do? Here was a great Gandhian thinker to dialogue with and Dharampalji challenged the foundations of our understanding. His challenge to us was firstly, are you going to make india a great nation by running behind the tails of the west? And secondly, unless you find contemporary relevance to our shastras and traditional knowledge systems, we will simply live in old glory. So many of us went into an intense study of various stream of Indic Knowledge. I took up the study of Yoga Sutras with Yogacharya Krishnamacharya and Desikachar as a way of understanding behaviour. My wife Sashi took up the study of Indian Architecture with Shri Ganapathy Stapati.

2. You have attained wisdom under the guidance of masters such as Yogacharya Krishnamacharya & TKV Desikarchar. How did that transform your life?

I met them at a time when I was searching for answers. It was also a time when I was going through a great upheaval since the family business i had just entered floundered, my father made many mistakes and there was a heavy price to pay. Learning the practice was the one thing that enabled me to meet the crisis with inner balance. Krishnamacharya’s Asana and prANAyAma is very deeply based on the breath. This actually has a profound effect on ones emotional stability. So it helped me deal with issues and problems without getting disturbed unduly. The study of the shatras – Yoga Sutra, Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads was also very important. It shook up ones world view that was largely western, and opened one up to an idea of man and an idea of the world where acquisitiveness has no place. I was so drawn to this way of understanding the world that I became a teacher at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram and taught at KYM for over 10 years.

3. You are a renowned yoga teacher as well with more than decade of experience in teaching at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram. How do you perceive the acceptance of Yoga amongst Indians now and has the understanding improved  through the years?

Yes and no. When I first went into the study, I would encounter two kinds of responses: firstly, commiserating with me, “what is wrong with you? Why have you let go of your IIT background and gone into some old stuff?” Secondly, an exotic response “what extraordinary powers are you aquiring? Can you teach me”. Today we have a much more grounded response, the relevance of Yoga in the mind scineces is recognised and so on. However, it has gone a bit over board and a very dumbed down and cosmetic/ casual idea of Yoga seems to be taking over. We need a grounded and serious relationship with the various practices of Yoga so that our lives become dharmic.

4. What is the laboratory learning techniques that you have pioneered in your work as a behavioural scientist through Sumedhas – The Academy for Human Context?

Around the time when i started a serious study with Krishnamacharya and Desikachar, I also came in touch with Prof. Pulin K Garg (IIM Ahmedabad). He was one of the pioneers in the field of Applied Behavioural Sciences, especially encounter group and T-Group work. He was passionate about an Indian resurgence, his family was deeply involved in the independence movement. He innovated on the group process work and brought in what he called an “Upanishdic dialog” mode into the work. Also he had many differences with the western concepts in Psychology and brought in many profound insights into the way we ought to look at the human psyche. A few of his students, Indira Parikh, Ashok Malhotra, Sushanta Bannerjee and Shyam Gupta and I have co-founded Sumedhas where we train people in these methods. We have developed Pulin’s methods further. I have focused on bringing the antaranga sAdhana of Yoga as a central theme of my work. Indian Dance and Theatre are a great treasure house of understanding of the Human Psyche. I have innovated with bringing these aspects into my experiential learning processes that I call Immersion.

5. You have designed a very novel concept called “Totally Aligned Organisation” which you elaborate in your book, that brings together your understanding of Manufacturing Systems, Human Processes and Yoga. How did this come about and has it been put into practice in the industry?

Following the principle that Dharampalji insisted upon, I have always tried to apply the learning from Yoga to solve contemporary issues. I facilitated a series of discussions between Pulinand Desikachar. This led to a selection of about 60 Sutras that form the core of “Inner work” (antaranga sAdhana). Also, with my engineering background, I was doing some organization consulting. Organization transformation requires systemic changes as well as behavioural changes that energise the new systems. If one of them is absent change cannot take root. My wife was studying intensely with Ganapathy Stapati and he would often speak about the traditional design principles. In one of those discussions he pointed out that the alignment of the inner through yoga and the alignment of the outer through design principles of architecture was the core of an Indian life style! Brilliant! Let me elaborate, a good design (and vAstu speaks of design of many tools not just building) is one that has bhogadyam- utility, sukhadarshanam- aesthetics, and ramyam- inner delight. I have translated this as efficectiveness, efficiency and evocation. Western ideas of design do not discuss evocation, and tend to over value only the utilitarian. So even in Business Management the human element which is central to evocation is undervalued. Indian design would seek to balance all three. There are many such seminal ideas that i have explored in my work and share in my books. In the book “Organization Development and Alignment” (that I co-authored with Gagandeep Singh), we have taken the central idea of creation from the Tripura Rahasya and explored its deployment as a model for Organization design.

6. What sort of challenges have you had to face in your attempt to build a convergence between Indian traditional wisdom and modernity? Do you think the time is ripe for others to present such projects in the mainstream?

I definitely think the time is ripe. Indian Business is making a come back, Indian scientists and technologists are recognised for their capabilities, and all this is making people review the idea of India that is caught in colonial orientalism. However, we are yet to boldly step out the dependence on western ideas and embrage the Indian. I see managers act from an Indian mind set but try very hard to adjust to western ideas. To give you an example, we are a very relationship based society, business works on relationships and trust. Yet we try to stragegise using western frames that do not honour this very important resource. My conviction is that unless we make the shift soon and embrace the Indian both in terms of behaviour and organization systems we will pay a very big price.

7. Your book Leadership Dharma: Arjuna The Timeless Metaphormanagement and leadership techniques from The Mahabharata has met with much success. How has leadership been demonstrated in the Indian context and is it any different from the West?

Leadership in India is a complex phenomenon. Most sucessful Indian companies especially the family owned ones have found a way of keeping their traditions alive. However, western theory still dominates the discourse. I have found a great resonance with Indian leadership teams when we speak about the Mahabharata Archetypes. In fact my book is a compilation of many of my sucessful consulting engagements. One of the things that immediately connects with people is the importance of the five types of power, and not an over reliance on the Bhima type, the aggressive Rambo type leadership. Also the idea that managing dharma sankata is the key to sustained excellence is also instinctively grasped. But, the current modes of training and development rely on western models. Let me illustrate, competency is a big thing these days. But the Indian position would be to ask who is the person behind the “performer”? What are his/her inner propensities? Is there an inner harmony and balance? And so on. Also, without a deeper reflective mind one is solving problems symptomatically, and not making any fundamental change in building capacity. Capacity building is as much an inner work as it is  competency aquisition.

8. There are 5 basic leadership types that your book talks about, each synonymous with the five Pandavas. Is there a specific reason you chose them and not any other characters from the epic?

This is where an understanding of the Heroes as archetypes becomes critical. For instance, the Mahabharata is a beautiful juxtaposition of people who display different aspects of the same capabilities. Sahadeva is a deep thinker, strategist and problem solver, and so is Shakuni. But they are counterpoints, one is the negative side of the same archetype. Bhima and Duryodhana are equally competent fighters, but Duryodhana gets caught with envy. This multifaceted understanding of ones propensities is what one is looking at and not the stereotypical idea of external behaviour. So an understanding of how these five energies act within us is the key, and all of us have all five possibilities but, we favour one or the other and become dysfunctional when we called upon to show a different response. One might be a great thinker like Sahadeva, but the context might call for a Bhima type response. Through understanding oneself and the context, one can choose appropriate responses or encourage the right person to respond. Also since we are looking at these as five enrgies within us, the permutations and combinations of these propensities (combined with various levels of intensities) creates millions of possible behavioural profiles! The Mahabharata can be seen through the lens of these five Archetypes, their various shades and shadows.

9. You’ve also been associated with various NGOs through your leadership program, how have you seen them transform through your efforts?

Some of the traditional ways of governing ouselves is still present in the memory of the rural people. Through the Barefoot Academy of Governance, I and my colleagues have done very remarkable work on the ground. We have impacted Water Management in Tamilnadu State, worked with insurgency situations in the norht east and so on. We are currently working with reviving the most backward Disrticts of TamilNadu, Orissa and Maharashtra.  We have used an idea called Koodam that is drawn from our traditional ways of managing multiple levels of ownership and multiple communities sharing resources.( watch the film “Mission Possible: Neerundu Nilamundu”). It has been thrilling to see how local communities all over India respond to this ancient mode, and come together. The modern political process runs counter to this grass roots democratic mind set. We are now in the process of partnering with TISS to create more grass roots facilitators. (

10. Along with your wife, Shrimati Sashikala Ananth, you are associated with a yoga and meditation centre called Ritambhara,located at Kotagiri in the Nilgiri Hills. In what way does it encourage people to move towards an ‘alternative way of engaging with life’?

Ritambhara is a great gift that Sashi and I have received. A few years back (when Sashi and I had turned 60) we were looking at what vAnaprastham might mean. A group of young people calling themselves the “Sacred Activists” approached us and asked how one could make Yoga the basis of their life and action. They were tired of the current activist mindsets. So Sashi and I invited them to work with us as we evolved a convergence of our expereince and study. We brought together all our learning namely, Yoga, Behavioural work, vAstu principles, Dance, Indian theatre, our experience with grass roots work and with organization systems. The group has evolved into Ritambhara and the various inner-work methods we worked with are now the offerings of Ritambhara. The antaranga sAdhana of Yoga is the core, Mahabharata, Dance, Theatre and so on enable us to create an exciting and intense experiential way of internalizing the princles of antaranga sAdhana. Inner-work cannot be taught theoratically! We also have a lot of dialogues on the question “what is India?” amongst the core members of Ritambhara.

11. So the 3rd stepping stone in Ritambhara, namely theImmersion aspect, has a 5 day offering comming up called the shringAra rasAnubhava: Discovering songs of love’ this April 2018?

Yes that’s our next offering, an intense experiential dive into the idea of love. The idea of love is a very nuanced one in our culture. With the growing westernization, the meaning of love is getting restricted. Holi used to be a celebration of Manmatha. The idea of love encompasses vAtsalyam, premamsnehamand so on. We will be using Indian Dance as the backdrop for this exploration. Indian Dance has explored all the various aspects of love in a beautiful way replete with rasa. The current dominant idea of love is not healthy.

12. Who all are associated with this event & what can one hope to accomplish through it?

Ajay Vishwanathan an accomplished dancer from the Mysore tradition is a co-facilitator. Rajan Swaroop a spiritual seeker will also be part of the faculty. Ganapathy brings in Kalari and Theatre while Kasturi is a theare person. We have worked together in the past in other programmes, this is the first focused exploration of shringAra. I am excited by this offering. I think this Immersion will help people engage with their own lives in a more wholesome way, more rasAtmika.

13. So can anyone register and be a part of this program? Or is any prior knowledge of Indian aesthetics or music necessary?

Any one is welcome. A background will help, but is not a pre-requisite. We are sure the participants will discover the joyousness and beauty of Indian aesthetics, and get drawn to it through the programme. They will be able to explore the idea of love inside-out, and not as a disembodied idea.

About Author: Pragyata Staff

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