Interviewsand Articles


Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case For Compassion: Book Review

by Richard Whittaker, Oct 1, 2011



Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World's Greatest Business Case For Compassion.
Pavithra K. Mehta, Suchitra Shenoy, Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Paperback, 324 pages
In his memoir, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, Carl Jung writes that the decisive question for man is:  "Is he related to something infinite or not?" He adds, "Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interests upon futilities, and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance. If we understand and feel that here in this life we already have a link with the infinite, desires and attitudes change." No story I know of is a better exemplar of these words than the story of Doctor Govindappa Venkataswamy, who came to be known simply as Dr. V.
     Picture a gifted young man from the humble beginnings of a small village in India. Imagine that he finds his way into medical school and then into a position in military service as a medical officer. Just as he's hitting his stride. he is struck down with severe rheumatoid arthritis. For two years, he is completely bedridden. His dreams of becoming an obstetrician are dashed. From that point on, as he puts it, severe pain will be his constant companion in life. But, as he slowly recovers, he is able to return to his medical training.  
     It's suggested he shift his studies to opthalmology. Although his hands are now twisted and deformed and lack the strength they once had, perhaps he will be able to coax the delicate skills needed for eye surgery into them. And so he does. He becomes an eye doctor, "by accident," as he liked to say. 
     Now imagine this man at 58 years old. He has just retired from government service as an eye doctor. He has a small pension. Somewhere in those years Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual collaborator became important guides in Dr. V's thinking. In retirement, what lies ahead? 
     As it turned out, Dr. V had a post-retirement project in mind. It was a bit more ambitious than the usual plans of retirees. He aimed to eliminate needless blindness in India-about 12 million cases susceptible to reversal by proper medical treatment.
     It's said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Dr. V's first step was to rent a house and open an eleven-bed eye clinic. He had no business plan, hardly any money and no safety net. What he did have was a deep way of seeing, and a vision perfectly aligned with the words of Carl Jung: "Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interests upon futilities, and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance." 
     An essential (and radical) part of Dr. V's strategy was to target those least able to pay for such medical treatment and to provide eye care to them without cost. This was Dr. V's post-retirement project. What happened? Infinite Vision is that story, and I can't recommend it highly enough. This is a true story. It's so astonishing one feels the need to underline that fact.  
Because the externals of this story are so compelling it's easy to overlook the inner side of it, without which it could not have happened at all. In the book this element is described in different ways. "The mechanics of how Aravind works are covered in some detail by business case studies, but they fall short on the more abstract questions of what created, and continues to animate, the model. Through a continued process of aspiration, rejection and surrender, Dr. V was able to tap into an intelligence that went beyond the thinking mind. Dr. V made several crucial decisions for Aravind that were rooted in the inexpressible logic of his deeper awareness. His approach often worked inversely, with decisions coming long before any rational justification. Initially, this took some getting used to. But he had an uncanny knack for intuiting decisions that yielded tremendous benefit-sometimes 5, 10, or even 20 years down the line.  
     Ram Dass was one of the people whose lives were impacted by Dr. V. Ram Dass says of Dr. V, "He performed, in the world of blindness, a miracle. Institutions, rules, procedures, he treated them like silly putty-he could mold them. He had a vision from a next level. Even when everyone knew what was called for, he would hear offscreen that we should do it a different way. He was dancing to a different drummer." 
Excerpts speak of this intangible element at the heart of his work:
    "To some of us bringing divine consciousness to our daily activities is the goal. The hospital work gives us an opportunity for this spiritual growth."
     "My interest in my profession is how to make this work a field for inner growth and perfection."
     "Aravind Hospital is not a mechanical structure repairing eyes. It has a deeper purpose."
This partial summary is a sketch of the outer side to this story.
  • 1976-Aravind Eye Clinic opens with eleven beds.
    1981-with a new, 600-bed hospital, Aravind reaches 10,000 surgeries a year.
    By 1988 Aravind has expanded to three hospitals.
    1991-the clinic reaches 50,000 surgeries a year.
    1996-Aravind reaches 100,000 surgeries a year. In the first decade of the millennium an additional three hospitals are added with a total of over 3200 beds.
    2009-Aravind reaches 300,000 surgeries a year.
Today the clinic sees 2.5 million patients a year. It consists of several hospitals, has extensive community outreach programs, provides postgraduate and paramedical education, has an eye research institute, an ophthalmic products manufacting arm [Aurolab] and has a management consulting service for eye hospitals worldwide [LAICO]. As one well-informed eye surgeon reflected, "This man's work now probably touches 40% of eye care in the developing world." In all of this, the quality of eye care provided is absolutely on a par with the best offered anywhere. And Aravind runs at costs that are a tiny fraction of what is spent in the U.S. and other developed countries while outpacing all in productivity by orders of magnitude. For instance, the average number of cataract surgeries per year per surgeon in the U.S. is below 200. At Aravind, the average number per surgeon per year is ten times that much. 
The ideal Dr. V followed faithfully, and was able to instill in others, was to make his work a sadhana [a spiritual practice]. As he said repeatedly, "It is not about buildings, equipment, money or material things, but a matter of consciousness."  -rw

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine. 


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