I must consider myself blessed by Goddess Meenakshi of Madurai. She has given me the friendship of three good souls. I must say, ‘four’. Even though the fourth one lives away from Madurai now, I have leaned on him quite a bit in the last two to three years. I would not want to name them lest they be embarrassed.
One of them handed me a copy of ‘Infinite Vision’, the story of Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai. I am proud to say that I grew up in the city and claim as my hometown, the city that houses this institution. Could this book have been named, ‘Inner vsion’? May be. It would have been just as appropriate as ‘Infinite vision’. Reading this book has been the best spiritual experience of 2012 or arguably the best spiritual experience, ever, for me.
This is what Dr. Aravind Srinivasan, second generation doctor and nephew of Dr. G. Venkataswamy (Dr. V) had to say of the man:
“Dr. V. started all this at 58…. In his own life-time, this man did a little over 100,000 surgeries. And now, his organisation does 300,000 operations a year. Think about that. With every passing year, Dr. V’s direct contribution is multiplied three times over because of the seeds he planted. Then there’s Aurolab, producing two million lenses a year, and LAICO, that has trained thousands of health professionals across the globe….. The way I look at it, this one man’s work probably touches 40 percent of eye care in the developing world today”. He did these 100,000 surgeries with crippling arthritis and pain in his hands.
Words must and surely fail to describe the feelings that swept over me as I read these lines. What a life it has been for dr. V? This is spirituality par excellence. His life makes it apt to describe him as the modern Mahatma.
The book traces the path of this great institution beautifully with all its growing pains – the vision, the initial struggle, acceptance, recognition in the market place, name, fame, new generation, generational conflicts, aping competition vs. retaining identity, frustrations, leadership transition, acceptance of core values.
It is great that the book ends on a note whereby the second and third generation have accepted the underlying service ethos and spirituality behind the institution. The book captures these two foundations of the institution beautifully. It is clear that the book has been a labour of love for Ms. Pavithra Mehta, who is a member of the family and who does not wield scissors and removes the cataract from patients. Yet, her book should open many eyes.
Dr. Aravind Srinivasan says that Aravind Eye hospital is now moving at a pace at which it can still retain its value system. That is well said and it is not merely a statement of reality but also a statement of pride. Comparing it with the industry that I was part of for the last two decades, how many financial institutions can say that?
This book, even though it is about Dr. V and the great institution captures the generational conflicts and their eventual resolution and acceptance of core values through the voice of Dr. Aravind Srinivasan. While Aravind Eye Hospital is alert to the threats of competition, they are clear that they are not in the race. They are clear that they shaped the entire eco-system for this race once and that they should and will do so once again. As Pavithra quite perceptively notes, the edge in Dr. Aravind’s voice is no longer there that was there a year ago and that the emphasis was now on direction and not speed.
Both the process of selection of the new leader and the eventual choice should instil tremendous optimism about this institution that many would want to see succeed and keep succeeding. But, succeed in what? Clearly, they are not in the rat race. “You have to be completely out of the rat race to build an institution like this” – p. 93, quote attributed to Dr. Aravind. Spot on.
My heart swelled with emotion, awe and respect (and more) on reading the goal that Dr. Ravindran, the new Head, wants Aravind Eye Hospital to succeed in:
“In the next ten years, we’ re entering a time when the materialistic part of India will peak. Our challenge is: how do we be modern and still retain inner simplicity? we have to learn to balance. As leaders, we have to be simple, and a few of us must practice at this level. The material support that we give people shouldn’t be our focus……. but the focus should be on the inner aspiration…………….At Aravind, unless we practise certain things, people won’t see what differentiates us from the rest. Through Dr. V’s work, Aravind has emerged as a place where you can practise the truth. Through Aravind, he created an external manifestation for an inner aspiration.
He ensured that there is a soul behind the systems and procedures. New leadership should not just look at Aravind’s work as the elimination of needless blindness. That is the outer goal. But, there is an inner goal. We must not do the outer work at the cost of that inner goal. We have to maintain Aravind as a place where people can express their true nature. We shouldn’t forget this”.
Place where people can express their true nature? Coming from the background of the financial industry, that sounds like another world. But, if there is an institution that can do that, it has to be Aravind Eye Hospital. Honestly, on reading those lines, I regretted that I was a Doctor in Philosophy and not a Doctor in Ophthalmology.
This short, personal review has to end with a reference to Shri. Aurobindo and the Mother, who had inspired the founder of this great institution. The book does dedicate some pages to outline the philosophy of Shri. Aurobindo. In his ‘Integral Yoga’ approach to life, the state of consciousness from which any action is generated is believed to determine its transformative power.
That is a very powerful line. This is consistent with how Lord Krishna defines an act of dharma. It is not the action that determines its dharmic or adharmic character but the intention behind it. That is how, in the context of Mahabharath and Kurukshethra, he could comfortably exhort Arjuna to fight.
I could not resist thinking that India might have evolved differently had it taken the message of the Bhagavadh Gita or the message of Shri Aurobindo more seriously than it did the messages of Buddha and Gandhi.
(‘Infinite Vision’ – How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion by Pavithra K. Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy. Berrett Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2011).
This review was originally written in April 2012 and circulated to friends.