मृत्योर् मामृतम् गमय – Part i

Mortality is at once the greatest boon and the biggest fear of the Human race. People are driven to achieve things, both great and terrible because their time in this world is limited. While some philosophies and religions try to take the sting out of this urgency by teaching that the Atman is imperishable, not many have the equanimity to absorb the lesson fully. Hence, people do what they do to achieve fame, for everlasting fame is immortality. Great fame is associated with deeds of prominence and comes from the pursuit of excellence. Humans pursue excellence in two streams: by accident, or through institutional design.

Accidental success / excellence / fame doesn’t mean that the individual had nothing to do with it. Instead, such a success is an accident in a given society – an unintended result of the rules of society and is outside the norm of what the society aspires to. Accidental fame is a story of personal endeavour. It is the person who has overcome overwhelming odds to achieve something greater than one’s own station. Often, accidental excellence is also a result of one-sided history: the winner takes all syndrome. However, such excellence is seldom replicated – even within the same lineage. What the father or mother achieves, the son or daughter squanders. History is replete with examples of individual brilliance and achievement, that dies away with the individual. Often to be revisited, but never replicated. Modern India is filled with stories of accidental success and fame. However, the impact of such success on society as a whole is often limited. The reason for “flash in the pan” behaviour of accidental successes, is that a society doesn’t have the means nor the mindset to learn from the successes and failures and propagate it.

Colonial / Post-colonial India has a never-ending stream of such accidental successes. Probably the best known amongst them is the story of Ramanujam, the mathematician. Without much formal training, he explored numbers to an extent that is incomprehensible to even today’s mathematicians. Many of his theorems had to wait for computers, to verify or refute. But, he had no intellectual parampara after him. When he died, all we were left with was his fame, his works, and the false pride of having born in the same land as such a genius. The story of post-colonial India has been worse. It is a universe filled with so many stars who didn’t shine beyond their active life. For instance, take the case of Metro Man – Sreedharan. He is famous because he was able to meet project specifications within the constraints of time and cost. In a society where time and cost overruns are the norm, someone meeting the bare minimum became a star. But, we await the next metro man with hope in our eyes – not a certainty in our mind. For, these successes are despite the system and not because of it.

In short, we have become a society that limps along using accidental successes as a crutch. Brain drain is a logical consequence of such an existence. When we see an Indra Nooyi, a Satya Nadella, or a Sundar Pichai – we are seeing how extraordinary brains have left the society in search of better societies. We also question whether the same people would have been able to achieve the same things, were they stuck in this system! There is no pride, but a deep sense of having betrayed the best minds over several generations.

Leaving aside immortality and fame, a society that relies on accidental successes cannot achieve its true potential. For instance, India’s contribution to international scientific journals measured in papers per capita [or per 100K population], is amongst the lowest in the world. This clearly points to a larger problem in the society that we are not even at a global average for publications/inventions per million.

So, what is the remedy for these lacunae? It is institutional thinking. That would be the discussion in the next essay.


This essay is part II of a four-part essay on institutional thinking and excellence in societies
Part I: https://kreately.in/from-mortality-to-immortality-accidental-success/
Part II: https://kreately.in/from-mortality-to-immortality-institutional-design/
Part III: https://kreately.in/from-mortality-to-immortality-excellence-in-pre-islamic-india/

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