The writer with his son Nadeepa Dharmasiri (left) and Prof. Uditha Liyanage
Eighth and tenth August are two days that remind me of the true reality of life. Two remembrances close to my heart occur on the same week. Prof. Uditha Liyanage was a sage of our age, in touching many minds as a marketing maestro, left us on 10 August 2015 at the age of 61. Nadeepa Dharmasiri was a precious prodigy, in touching many hearts as a loving son, left us on 8 August 2016, at the age of 13. I have penned many reflections on my association with them during past years. Today’s column is an attempt to dive deeper in discovering three awakenings.
As Seneka (the younger) said, “Time discovers truth; time heals what reason cannot.” It is special to reflect on my association with a superior and a son, in celebrating two special lives. My enriching encounters with late Prof. Uditha Liyanage spanned over 20 years as a student, mentee (protégé), faculty colleague and as his successor, leading the Postgraduate Institute of Management (PIM). My engaging times with Nadeepa, as the only son (younger to my daughter) lasted for 13 years with cherished memories. I continuously strive to look back in a detached manner in accepting the uncertainties associated with life.
I remember late Prof. Liyanage calling me to the Director’s office and handing over an article. It was on being ethical and effective, written by a veteran from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIMB), titled “The Nishkam Karma Principle.” I did not realise its increasingly impactful value until the sad demise of my revered mentor.
Nishkam Karma is a term derived from the revered Hindu text, Bhagawad Gita. It literally means detached involvement. Performing work, accepted on the basis of agreed remuneration, with little calculation or comparison with others, or concern for additional personal recognition, gain or reward during or completion of the work. A verse in Bhagavad Gita enunciates the principle of Nishkam Karma as:
“Thou hast a right to action, but only to action, never to its fruits; let not the fruits of thy works be thy motive, neither let there be in thee any attachment in inactivity.”
Nishkam Karma can also be described as self-less or desire-less action, which is performed without any expectation of fruits or results. This is the central tenet of Karma Yoga path to Liberation, according to Hindu texts. Now it has now found place not just in business management, management studies but also in promoting better Business ethics as well. Its modern advocates press upon achieving success following the principles of Yoga, and stepping beyond personal goals and agendas while pursuing any action over greater good, which has become well known since it is the central message of the Bhagavad Gita.
In Indian philosophy, action or Karma has been divided into three categories, according to their intrinsic qualities or gunas. Here Nishkam Karma belongs to the first category, the Satvik (pure) or actions which add to calmness; the Sakam Karma (Self-centred action) comes in the second rājasika (aggression) and Akarma (in-action) comes under the third, tāmasika which correlates to darkness or inertia.
The opposite of Nishkam Karma is termed as Sakam Karma meaning attached involvement. It highlights performing work, accepted on the basis of agreed remuneration, with anxious comparative calculation vis-à-vis others, for additional personal recognition, gain or reward during or on completion of the work. It by no way means one has to leave the worldly affairs in becoming an ascetic. As Sri Aurobindo aptly pointed out, “action done with Nishkam Karma is not only the highest, but the wisest, the most potent and efficient even for the affairs of the world.” A desirable scenario would be to see the engaged employees becoming detached, yet continuing to be involved.
A simple example could be, a bank manager devoting himself/herself for the achievement of the given objectives, in a whole-hearted manner, without thinking of what one would get in return. The opposite of this will be another manager working hard on a personal agenda, aspiring to get the next promotion early. The differences between Nishkam Karma and Sakam Karma is a clear comparison between “green” vs. “greed.” I saw the profound practice of Niskam Karma in the life of late Prof. Uditha Liyanage.
Can someone be conceptually rich as well practically relevant? I saw both in late Prof. Liyanage.
The way he generated interest in us not only for the concepts but also for the applications was indeed remarkable. He often advocated us to “be brilliant in basics.” His delivery of a session was much interactive and informative, as he firmly believed in “chalk and talk.” This was the case with numerous topics in Strategic Marketing, Marketing Communication, Consumer Behaviour, Research, Business Strategy and Policy. Of course, he had PowerPoint slides but not with just points but with powerful points. He always challenged us by asking “what is THE point? We had to be clear about the central theme or the main argument.
Prof. Liyanage inspired me in many fronts. He was standing tall in front of all of us. As a sought-after marketing scholar, a strategic management thinker, an exceptional academic, a thought-provoking teacher and a visionary leader, he was a guiding light for us. I saw him rendering yeoman service in multiple ways in raising the PIM flag higher.
“The process of learning and one’s exposure to education must be continuous. There is so much more to be known, and that which you know may no longer be valid.” This had been Prof. Liyanage’s advice. He shared with us articles, web-links and books that are of high relevance to sharpening the managerial skills. I still remember how he shared the article on “Nishkam Karma (detached involvement) written by Prof. Chakraborty of Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. Prof. Liyanage was much interested in knowing my reflections on it, and it took time for me to realise the value of such gestures. Moreover, I see the immense value of detached involvement as a leader, thanks to him.
I saw the blossoming of transformational leadership at PIM with Prof. Liyanage. He influenced all of us to raise the quality and relevance of all modules we deliver. “Our business is mastery,” he often uttered. “PIM brings the reward of outstanding results to those professional managers who strive towards mastery.” That is how he influenced the aspiring learners of PIM. Converting practitioners to professionals with character and competence has been our endeavour.
He influenced us to change for the better. Through his famous “mod-tradi consumer model” , he encouraged us to strike a balance between the traditions and technology. I still remember how he insisted us of using more practical examples in discussing a theory than being overly theoretical in neglecting the practice. He showed us through his innovative teaching approaches as to how we should maintain depth and breadth.
Prof. Liyanage compared PIM to a temple and often suggested that the work we do has a high spiritual value. He encouraged us to “give more than get” regarding rewards. Having left a lucrative multinational career in becoming an academic, this lesson was much soothing for me.
He cautioned me to strike the needed balance between knowledge creation and knowledge sharing when I was having an over-demand for training and consultancy. Research role, though not financially rewarding, is of extreme use for a management academic. I learnt how to be a multiple role player with balance and brilliance, thanks to him. My respect towards him, in fact, grows day by day with gratitude towards a “revered mentor.”
Renowned Cuban poet Jose Martí underscored the human need for creative expression when he wrote, “There are three things every person should do in his or her life — plant a tree, have a son, and write a book.” I did all three and now in hindsight see the void of being “successful” and the value of being “significant.”
My son was my hero on many fronts. He was an all-rounder with a flair for music and a favour for technology. He was loved by everyone who had an encounter with him. This was evident in the way students, teachers, relations, and friends alike emotionally responded upon hearing of his sudden demise. Being a junior prefect and a chorister at Royal College, he was in the limelight as a bright and an obedient student. I learnt a lot by being with him. My association with him gave me many an exposure to discover him. As a life-long learner in management, it was indeed “reverse mentoring” in action. From early childhood, he was a “hugging” boy. He used to request from me and his mom, “give me a big hug.” A flying kiss was a regular feature when he was half asleep when I had to leave early in the morning. He was the cheer generator at home front. The popular prescriptions of positive thinkers were very much evident in little Nadeepa.
He was a natural team leader. There have been many instances where he played a key role in organising class parties, trips, and other events. The way others rallied around him was amazing. He knew how to gather friends for a worthy cause. Whilst I was teaching teamwork, he really demonstrated it in his own way. Nadeepa was often creative in many fronts. He was writing poetry and composing songs. He was handy with the camera I bought from the USA and took many uncommon shots. He won many creative writing competitions. What I insist on being creative, I saw clearly in my son. I saw the curiosity in him the way he asked many intelligent questions, especially when we were travelling together. He wanted to think deeply and to probe. No wonder, how he found science his favourite subject. At times, I felt he wanted to challenge the assumptions and have a fresh way. What I was teaching as “out of the box thinking,” I saw in his own original approach.
Nadeepa wanted to be a scientist and a priest. That may sound like a rare and unique combination. He was spiritual by nature. I saw a young pure heart brimming with genuineness in him. He had asthma but have got quite used to an inhaler. Strangely, he experienced an acute asthmatic attack resulting in a struggle at the Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU) of Lady Ridgeway Hospital for three days. I still recall looking through the glass door of the MICU last time, whilst Ruklanthi was inside sitting close to Nadeepa. She consoled me saying, “He is too precious for this world.”
I was so glad to collectively initiate the creation of “Prof. Uditha Liyanage Memorial Library” at PIM, and jointly launching the Biennial Memorial Oration together with Sri Lanka Institute of Marketing (SLIM) and Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM). The inaugural oration was held in 2019 delivered by Dr. Mahesh Amalean and the second one was on 10 August 2021, delivered by Dr. Hans Wijesuriya. The third memorial oration is planned on 10 August 2023 featuring Senior Professor Malik Ranasinghe, the Chairman of Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) and former Vice Chancellor of University of Moratuwa. He will deliberate on the new vistas of education with specific emphasis on “asynchronous on-line learning for mature knowledge seekers.”
Nadeepa Dharmasiri Memorial Prize for Science (my son’s favourite subject) awarded to grade 9 students at Royal College will be a way to remember his name for the aspiring scientists. We are pleased to have created the Nadeepa Dharmasiri Memorial Trust Fund (www.glorytogodthronadeepa.info) to help the needy children of his age, and despite challenges, several charity projects have been done with the generous contributions of relatives and friends.
“In the end it’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years,” so said Abraham Lincoln. Both my revered mentor and my reverse mentor proved it in different ways. Prof. Uditha Liyanage left a legacy as a legendary scholar. Nadeepa Dharmasiri in his small way showed the value of a loving son. Goodbye my beloved Sir. Goodbye my darling son. I collectively celebrate both these special lives with peace and solace.
(The writer, a Senior Professor in Management, and an Independent Non-executive Director, can be reached at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)