Arun Vaidya

Who Believed in the power of spirituality for humanity

On July 7, 2006 a humble and a noble doctor departed from our world, leaving us with an inspiring legacy of his vision: that unnecessary blindness caused by cataract can be avoided, that necessary medical services can be made available to the needy, irrespective of their ability to pay.

He was a great admirer of McDonald’s success in franchising consistent product-service experience to its consumers around the world, service without discrimination. Recognising the core necessity of social marketing, he applied it in the field of eye care.

Dr. V used to reflect: “If Coca-Cola can sell billions of sodas and MacDonald’s can sell billions of burgers, why can’t Aravind sell millions of sight-restoring operations, and eventually, the belief in human perfection? With sight, people could be freed from hunger, fear, and poverty. You could perfect the body, then perfect the mind and the soul, and raise people’s level of thinking and acting.”

In his model of medical care and business management practice, he integrated economically-challenged patients’ needs and comprehensive delivery management system with the efficiency of mass-marketing practices. And this he did, for over three decades, with 66% of his millions of patients having no means to pay. He offered, free of charge, a comprehensive cataract treatment that included medical evaluation and treatment, transport to and from a medical facility, lodging and boarding during the period of eye-care, and supply of essential eye-care products. His systemic eye care proactively also included diabetes education and treatment.

It was not charity, it was compassion and humility. Human society had never before witnessed the totality of a need-chain, of so many patients so thoroughly addressed. His integral methodology took into account, at the patients’ personal level, the issues of their economic plight, the inadequacy of their available support system and their domestic, cultural, and social circumstances. In addition, at an external community level, his Community Outreach Programmes evaluated physical suitability and economic feasibility taking into account availability of infrastructure, electricity, water, and volunteers.

It is a great and daring endeavour to envision holistically, and successfully manage, all the interrelated aspects on a sustained basis in any undertaking. What is so unique about his accomplishments is that, in 1976, upon the mandatory government retirement age of 58, he started his mission with a modest 11-bed hospital in Madurai, India. By 1988, he had successfully created a network of eye care hospitals highly admired in the world, with 475 paying-beds and 1,525 free-beds. How aptly, “On a height he stood that looked towards greater heights” 1 applies to his glorious success!

By 1997 he established 651 paying-beds and 2155 free-beds facilities and, not too long after that, on February 21, 2003, he opened his fifth eye care hospital with facilities for additional 131 paying-beds and 600 free-beds. This he established close to his sacred place of pilgrimage, Sri Aurobindo Ashram. In reverence to his spiritual Guru, Sri Aurobindo, he named the network of his hospitals Aravind Eye Hospitals, popularly known as Aravind. As of 2003, Aravind had a total of 782 paying-bed and 2,755 free-bed facilities, the largest of its kind in the world. It is reputed to be par excellence the only place where the quality of care is invariant for a paying or a non-paying patient, where everyone is treated with dignity and compassion. Thus in a few decades, Aravind has transformed into a global conglomerate Aravind Eye Care System (AECS) as the world’s largest and one of the most admired self-sustaining organisations offering a wide spectrum of services for eye care, patient care, teaching, training, research, policy advocacy, capacity building along with manufacturing and distributing ophthalmic products and publications. AECS continues to grow in size, services and stature.

But his greater success is that this model is being adopted in an increasing number of developing countries. Aravind attracts students, physicians, scientists, health-care officials and volunteers from around the world to come to their facilities in Tamil Nadu State in India to learn, teach, observe, practise—and become more efficient and effective in their respective endeavours. In the congenial environment of Aravind, the global participants tend to enrich each other with their diverse cultural heritage and facilitate working towards humanity’s common problem with mutual respect and comradeship. It is a global centre of knowledge and expertise sharing, with participants from India, China, Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal, Tibet, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Zambia, Kenya, Ethiopia, East Africa, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, Cameroon, Congo, Ghana, Bulgaria, Albania, Bolivia, Armenia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela along with UK and USA. UK and USA have been significant collaborators in this wonderful venture.

America plays a very special role in his scheme of things. Dr. V learned a lot from America in terms of medical practice, management of medical facilities and effective mass marketing through franchising. Several service-focused organisations in America voluntarily participated in his endeavour, bringing him closer to his goal in his early days. Many of the famed American medical institutions have collaborated with him. They, importantly, value greatly the training their own Ophthalmology Residents receive at Aravind. For instance, during January 2006—March 2007, twenty Ophthalmology Residents from US universities came to Aravind for their training.

Aravind is creating a new model for eye care as the core necessity of social marketing that addresses the fact that 45 million people in the world are blind and 90 percent of them live in developing countries where population growth continues unabated. Medically, three-quarters of all blindness is preventable or curable. In India alone, 12 million people are blind and 2–3 million are added every year—80 percent of them due to cataract, a curable disease. The devastating implication of blindness in the developing countries is that the unmanageable financial burden leads to neglect and consequently to death within a few years. Thus, a curable cataract disease becomes a fatal disease when the patients are perceived to be “mouths without hands”.

It is worth noting that since it opened, Aravind has given sight to more than 2 million people and more than 16.1 million patients have benefited from services rendered. A while back Mark Tully from BBC, in his Reports from India had reported, “Aravind Hospitals perform 150,000 cataract operations in a year—more than the whole NHS [National Health Service], UK.” In 2005 alone, across all Aravind Eye Hospitals, 1,721,898 outpatient visits were handled, while 247,235 surgical and laser procedures were performed. As of 2006-2007 Aravind annually examines over 1.7 million patients and performs over 250,000 operations. This puts things in perspective, that not only Aravind’s contribution is amazing but also its rate of increase of contribution is simply astounding. The march continues.

“To do more with less” is a contemporary management mantra; however, the diligence with which it is practised at Aravind is unparalleled. Aravind is not only super- efficient, but utmostly effective in its performance to be self sufficient. What motivates its staff is the practicing vision of the Mother: “It is not what you do that matters, but the way you do it and the consciousness you put into it.” Pema Chodron said it so well, “True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortune than ourselves but from realising our kinship with all beings.” Aravind has demonstrated it convincingly.

Aravind’s management techniques includes vision-driven and goal-focused inspiring collective leadership, focusing on Critical Success Factors (CSFs), monitoring and managing Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), astute blending of strategic and short-term planning, streamlining procedures, standardising key functional processes, creative applications of modern technologies, prioritising resource allocations, minimising non-productive redundancies, preventing wasteful activities, institutionalising seamlessly their spiritually-oriented culture and work ethics. All these factors have enabled Aravind to bring down the cost of a cataract surgery to mere $10 compare to $1,650 elsewhere.

Aravind’s workflow model is hierarchical and leveraged to derive the most value contributions of its doctors. The doctors are viewed as their most scarce resource, recognised to be very precious in value, and financially most expensive in cost considering that all the net profits are ploughed back into Aravind. This requires maximising the doctors’ contribution by helping them to devote their time primarily to medical activities. The tests that can be done by paramedical staff are done by the paramedics only, and the counselors help the patients to make informed decisions. Everyone is thoroughly trained in the required skills and all are very competent in their knowledge.

Dr. V also believed that “Intelligence and capability are not enough. There must be the joy of doing something beautiful.” When one comes to Aravind, it is not surprising to experience that the environment is charged with purposefulness and that there is a subdued sense of dignity in work done by the staff members who are focused and cheerful.

Jack Welch, former Chairman and CEO of GE is famous for increasing the value of GE from $13 billion to several hundred billion. He is also famous for his management skills. He emphasised the paramount value of employees in the success of GE, which is a valuable guidance to manage exceptionally. At Aravind, the core management team collectively values the merit of focusing and critically evaluating the potential, trainability, attitude, aptitude, and qualifications of their potential employees before hiring them. Their Human Resource Department under the leadership of Dr. Natchiar, sister of the founder of Aravind, addresses all the aspects of the employees’ career-life-cycle at Aravind in terms of their hiring, retaining, training and helping them grow professionally. Thanks to her, Aravind is the employer of choice of their employees enabling Aravind to fulfil its destined role as envisioned by its founder. Apart from being an eye surgeon and an executive in the Aravind Eye Care System, Dr. Natchiar’s role as the Director of Human Resources at Aravind is of utmost significance in establishing the superior work-ethics and spiritual-value culture for Aravind to attain consistently its audacious performance goals. It is no surprise that her visionary elder brother relentlessly groomed her from her early childhood for this kind of mission. His vision had to have a home to belong and like a tree, it had to firmly plant its roots so that it could reach the sky.

Performance speaks for itself. The Aravind Eye Hospitals perform 5% of all cataract surgeries in India with less than 1% of all the ophthalmology resources of the country and still treats 66% of its millions of patients free of charge. In addition, AECS’s Aurolab plant produces about 1 million intraocular lenses a year representing 10% of the world supply at $5 a pair compare to $150 elsewhere. Aurolab’s products are used by eye care institutions and ophthalmologists in more than 120 countries. Aurolab turns a profit of 30% on its investment to fuel the continued growth of Aravind’s capacity and its expanding scope of services while maintaining its self-reliance. At Aravind, a new paradigm of “compassionate capitalism/social marketing” is practised to serve the needy population of the developing countries where by far most of the world’s population lives. Its goal is to make just an adequate amount of profit but generate a very high sales volume and thus make the profit sustainable. This is truly a win-win business model as it makes it possible to provide critical goods and services like eye care to millions of people and still achieve the three essential objectives of any business undertaking: to be viable, to be profitable and to be able to grow.

This is an astounding performance generating tremendous interest all over the world to learn about its success formula. Aravind has shared its fabled training programme with more than 200 hospitals in India and abroad. These hospitals now perform 5,000 to 10,000 surgeries a year, which is a vast improvement in their productivity. Furthermore, the Aravind model of management systems is taught as a case study in various prestigious business institutes including Stanford, Harvard, Michigan, IMD-Lausanne, and the Indian Institute of Management. It is not surprising that the worldwide demand for a comprehensive teaching of Aravind methodology by the hospital managers and administrators has led Arvind to develop a training programme. Aravind offers twice a year a structured and formal six-week training programme that is fundamental in its core but highly customisable to meet the disparate needs of diverse enterprises to develop and adopt suitable management strategies, action plans, and measures of performance to attain the goals consistent with the vision and mission of the organisations. It focuses on the eye care business, the dynamics of the interdisciplinary functions and their effective management. Professor Munson of Michigan touts it as a “must-course” for every eye hospital administrator.

Aravind, to promote global participation and collaboration for “eye care for all”, hosted in February 2005 a joint working group of Indo-US Vision Research Scientists under the aegis of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) and the National Eye Institute, USA.

What has been conveyed so far is a narration of a saga of care and compassion. The caring and compassionate doctor who pursued an impossible dream without ever wavering, transformed it into a reality with his spirituality-guided principles. Coupled with that he made it all possible with sound management practices. He was Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy who was called with affection and reverence simply Dr. V .

Dr. V’s pioneering work-methodology and its unparalleled results have won him worldwide admiration, respect, and many national and international awards. The Padmashree award from the Government of India, the Medal of the Presidency of the Italian Republic, the Helen Keller International Award, the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness Organisation Award, and the Schwab Foundation’s Outstanding Social Entrepreneurs award, are a few among them. He was the first Indian to be honoured with a fellowship by the Royal College of Ophthalmologists. He was the first Indian and Asian to be inducted into the Ophthalmology Hall of Fame of the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery.

Dr. V’s professional and personal aspects of life are intertwined and are very inspiring to any professional in pursuit of excellence and to any seeker of divinity through service to humanity. He exemplified a quest to be of service to a humanity in need of compassionate medical care, human bonding, and mutual respect overcoming all the barriers of inequality and indifference with his innate spiritual calling based on the integral value system encompassing human unity, harmony, and beauty. He has a unique distinction of being invited as a distinguished speaker to a famous American institute on three different disciplines: Ophthalmology, Divinity, and Business Management. Dr. V’s life-story is better than a fiction, more fascinating than a fantasy and greater than a utopian idealisation. Infinite Vision: Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, a DVD written and directed by Dr. V’s grand-niece, Pavithra Krishnan, offers a poignant portrait of Dr. V—person, professional, and partner of Humanity.

What Dr. V contributed to humanity is great but how he managed to contribute that is of even greater significance. We can learn from him to be humble, to be compassionate, to be inspiring leaders. We can create our own integral spiritual-service-business model to fulfil our great dream of serving humanity and in turn inspire and enable others to transform their great dreams into reality and make this world a better place for all. He was not mired by the shortsightedness and the stereotyped perception of the developing countries as a set of insurmountable difficulties caused by their increasing population, highly inadequate infrastructure, low per capita income and limited spending money, vast majority of neglected elders as well as malnourished infant population, diseases in epidemic proportions and illiteracy. He knew difficulties but difficulties became the driving motivation for him to surmount them, to bring a ray of hope in the world of gloom and doom.

Dr. V’s personal story is no less remarkable than the creation and the contributions of Aravind. Early in his professional career, he started with OB/GYN but rheumatoid arthritis caused his joints to deform with severe pain and made him remain bedridden in a Madras hospital for over a year. On recovery, he started all over again with great determination. He became an ophthalmologist. With great effort and will power, he had to learn even how to hold surgical instruments with his arthritic hands. Overcoming all the odds—internal and external—he marched on and eventually became the Head of the Department of Ophthalmology of the Government Medical College, Madurai. In his career, Dr. V performed more than 100,000 successful eye surgeries. In that frail and fragile-looking physical frame dwelt a mighty spirit that accepted no hindrance to its desire to serve. This is the inner dynamo that led him to undertake his life’s mission when he was required to retire per the institute’s regulation.

Dr. V was inspired by Sri Aurobindo’s revelation, “There is a Power within that knows beyond our knowings” 2. Dr. V’s guiding principle was that “Spirituality allows the divine force to work through each of us for a greater good.” Thus, indeed, any work can become a means of self-transcendence when done in the right spirit. This is the Karma Yoga of Gita.
When we read the following line from Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri:

“He made great dreams a mould for coming things…”3;

we begin to appreciate Dr. V’s significance and his achievements become one more step leading to the time when:

“The Spirit shall take up the human play,
This earthly life become the life divine…”4

Perhaps, it comes naturally to those who can be free from trepidations of self, influence of ego and attachment to self-interests so that they can invoke the spiritual force and effectively consecrate their entire being and all that they can be to the boundless Universal Force. Maybe, we can learn a little from Dr. V that great dreams can be transformed into reality with the utmost of sincerity of soul. He humbly explained the basis of his business-cum-service mission as follows: “When you grow to a level of spiritual consciousness, there is no exploitation.” The sincerity of his commitment was absolute and he devoted all his resources towards his great dream. It is interesting to note that even when Dr. V became world renowned and created the largest and very highly successful network of eye-care system in the world, he never took any financial gains from it for his personal benefit. He continued to maintain his spartan life style using the modest pension money that he received from his Government job of long ago. He practised the Gita’s:

“To have no personal expectations of fruits of labor as they are but offerings to the Divine.”

The following view about Dr. V expressed by Alan Robin MD, Associate Professor at the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore certainly represents the views of the millions around the world:

He was probably one of the greatest and most visionary ophthalmologists I’ve ever met. He was able to think outside the box and was able to conceptualise things that nobody had ever done. He was able to create a sustainable, profitable, health-care system in India that has enabled more people to be able to see and maintain their vision than anybody I’ve ever known. He has done more good for humanity than almost anybody I could imagine.

Dr. V used to call himself a country-boy; however, he was richly endowed with a value-focused family culture, a culture that became the foundation of his character. His philosophy was shaped by his difficult but ideals-driven childhood and the Integral Yoga teachings of Sri Aurobindo. If this country-boy could learn the ways of the Western economy and management and blend them effectively with spiritual principles, then why should not the world of business and management learn from him, from spiritual integration to improve itself and in turn improve the world?

Human society does not embrace the paradigm change willingly or easily. From Pharaoh Akhenaton and his Queen Nefertiti to Socrates, to Giordano Bruno, to Niels Bohr we have a history of confronting paradigm change. However, money is a great equaliser as it has a tremendous potential to bring about the paradigm change quickly and widely. Transition from the “Luddites” of the world of Agriculture-Economy to Industrial-Economy, to Info-Economy has been relatively less violent, more pervasive, and conducive to the global togetherness due to the drive for money. The betterment of global existence is enabled and gradually accelerated by the motivation of making money even with the triple-bottom-line of economic, social, and environmental considerations. May be such significant mind-set changes in our civilisation are paving a path of possibility for other commercial enterprises to emulate Dr. V’s business model.

Dr. V valued the utility of money but never hankered to amass money; he always strove to cut costs, increase efficiency, and build his market. Dr. V’s pioneering practice of market-driving instead of being market-driven was his way of generating needed money. His unique approach was to give his customers a new hope with a deeply satisfying experience that changes their lives and attitudes towards themselves and towards others; he also made it affordable for them. His customers became his championing salesmen enabling him to change the global landscape of eye care. It is so remarkable that he not only created a new paradigm of “compassionate capitalism /social marketing”, market-driving, and spiritually inspired integral management, but also a novel and effective method to make it prevalent.

Dr. V did not intellectualise spirituality; he simply exemplified, “All life is Yoga”. 5 Dr. V talked about his idea of leadership and the relevance of spirituality in work with Harriet Rubin of Fast Company. Mr. Rubin’s gem of contribution is as follows:

Leadership begins with the pursuit of self-knowledge and a vision bigger than any that can fit in the prospectus of a single corporation. All his life, Dr. V. has resisted smallness. Yet there is nothing egotistic about him. He asks himself, “How can my work make me a better human being and make a better world?” That question is at the heart of the mystery of leadership. To answer it is to seek perfection.

“Two qualities for leadership are to be a visionary and to know execution,” says Dr. V. “If I can go from consciousness to higher consciousness, then I’ll be a leader.” Dr. V’s work was to fight blindness in the world and in himself. The two missions are one. He realised his destiny by his work. Helping people see is to achieve a new level of consciousness.

But spiritual teachings, inspirational and useful as they may be, still are not enough.

“I am not an idea man,” Dr. V said “The task is not to aspire to some heaven but to make everyday life divine.”
Many members of the hospital staff go to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Says Dr. V: “We feel that the higher consciousness is trying gradually to give us a system. We are all aware of the parts of the human body as they work. We take in food; we like the taste of it. Part of it is absorbed here, part of it there. But we are not aware of it. The higher consciousness works in the same way. Slowly, your system is built around it, but not according to human nature. At the hospital, we are slowly building an organization that seems to be linked with the higher consciousness.”

In Dr. V, we cannot help noticing his internalizing the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. He followed, “Self-giving is true prayer.” 6 and “To know is good, to live is better, to be, that is perfect.” 7 Dr. V shares his pursuit:

The goal of life, Sri Aurobindo also taught, is not to escape from the world to some higher heaven, but to transform life on earth into a divine life. This process is accomplished, not by the mind, but by surrendering the mind and the vital life forces to the Divine-allowing the divine force to work on the body, the mind, and the life forces, and to transform them.
What I am really talking about is spiritualism. Spiritualism is a progressive awakening to the inner reality of our being, to a spirit, a self, a soul that is something other than our mind, body, and life. Spirit is an inner aspiration to know, to enter into contact and union with the greater reality beyond, a reality that also pervades the universe and dwells in us. As a result of that aspiration, contact, and union, there is a conversion, a turning, a birth into a new being.

Dr. V has medically, financially, and from the management perspectives achieved the remarkable success and implemented a new paradigm of “compassionate capitalism /social marketing”, market-driving, and spiritually-inspired integral management in the most difficult circumstance—the developing countries. Practised in the right spirit and done in the right way—this can potentially speed up a vast change in the developing countries creating a better world for all. This is a great dream waiting at the threshold to become a reality. He has thus, in a small way, paved the path for the world to discover its innate goodness and actualise its divine potential. In the words of Voltaire, in its positive sense, “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”

When we think of Dr. V and his legacy, Aravind, we see a dynamic and exhilarating ideal unfolding into a concrete reality in an awareness that is beyond the matter-of-fact, with an enthusiastic commitment to the mission. It is a subtle enabler of a paradigm where work blends body, mind, and the soul’s silent prayer uniting the individual self with the collective endeavors of collaboration and cooperation for the betterment of humanity. This is the lasting legacy of Dr. V to humanity—his dream—the impossible dream—the great dream—a paradigm change—to progress towards collective living in the reality of global harmony, happiness and perfection.

For me, our personal interaction began on December 9, 2005 with my request to meet with him at Aravind-Pondicherry (Puducherry) for an interview of 30 minutes. I was invited to speak at “All Life is Yoga—Business and Management” Seminar in January 2006 at Auroville, India. Along with my Integral Management Model—SATORI, I was planning to talk about Dr. V’s pioneering and globally inspiring spiritual business management model. Upon my arrival, I noticed a stack of reference materials kept ready for me, so I politely conveyed that I would try to conclude my interview in about 15 minutes and not take up his invaluable time. Smilingly, he looked at me and said, “You are here and I am here. Let us just talk.” And the time stood still for over two and half hours! What transpired there was beyond my wildest imagination and description. It was subsequently, when I came across the Mother’s statement, I fathomed our encounter:

When one speaks to the soul of a man, one always speaks to the same soul, whatever may be the differences of body, race or culture.8

That was an experience! On Dr. V’s anniversary, July 7, 2007, I humbly offer my prayers and homage.

1. Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, CWSA, Vol. 33, p. 46.
2. Ibid., p. 397.
3. Ibid., p. 45.
4. Ibid., p. 710.
5. Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, CWSA, Vol. 23, p. 8.
6. The Mother, Words of the Mother –II, CWM, Vol. 14, p. 100.
7. The Mother, Words of the Mother –III, CWM, Vol. 15, p. 173.
8. The Mother, Words of the Mother –II, CWM, Vol. 14, p. 350.
Two other helpful sources:
Website of Aravind Eye Care System.

Infinite vision: Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, a DVD, produced by Aravind Eye Care System, 2004.

“Dr. V — The Visionary, Who Believed in the Power of Spirituality for Humanity” was published in
Sri Aurobindo Ashram magazine, Mother India, January 2008, pp 15-24. ?
A narrative version of it was also included in the Bombay publication, Dignity Dialogue.