The Parable of the Sadhu

Parable of the SadhuBy Super Searcher

Bowen McCoy’s “Parable of the Sadhu” tells the tale of his journey walking through Nepal with his anthropologist friend, Stephen. At the halfway point of their 60-day trip in the Himalayas, on one of the most difficult summit climbs of the entire trip, Bowen and Stephen encountered a near dead, almost naked, barefoot, Indian holy man suffering from hypothermia and exhaustion. Another hiker had found the Sadhu above 15,500 feet and carried him down.

Climbing the mountain in the vicinity of Bowen and Stephen, and their assorted porters and Sherpas, were three other mountaineering parties from New Zealand, Switzerland, and Japan. Each of them provided the Sadhu with some provisions – clothing, food, and drink – but no one wanted to care for him further. The Sadhu was left behind, more than a two days’ journey from the nearest village. The climbers all pressed on and made the summit, their goal for that particular climb. But the fate of the Sadhu was left unknown. Both Stephen and Bowen supposed that, in the end, the Sadhu must have died. Bowen couldn’t get the Sadhu out of his mind, at least on retrospection: should he have done what he did – provide some assistance and then press on to complete his goal – or should he have done more?

The article moves on from the details of the story to highlight several moral dilemmas and ask questions of both the author’s moral responsibility and the responsibility of the group in such a situation. The underlying question of whether or not individual and group ethics are the same is then applied to the business world. (If you’re not in a business, think of it in terms of school or an organization to which you belong.) The author postulates that even though ethical dilemmas are difficult, common values and a culture based on thoughtful personal values, are integral to the success and health of every organization. Below is my take on the “Parable of the Sadhu“…

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If Bowen’s hiking companion Stephen had become incapacitated, I bet he would have helped him. So why should this stranger be any different? Like Stephen, I would have tried to get the horse, and asked the Sherpas to take the Sadhu down the mountain. But if the owners of the horse or the Sherpas wouldn’t cooperate, then I would have built a bivouac shelter, left provisions with him, carefully noted the location, then gone to the nearest place to get help.

Admittedly, each reason given in the article for not helping would occur to a person. If we have two instincts, one to do what we want and the other to help a fellow human, we will find ourselves trying to weaken the selfish desire and stir up the self-sacrificing desire. This can only be done by a conscious will. Otherwise the stronger selfish desire will prevail. Added to this internal struggle are the things your companions say to try and convince you. When you are unsure about what to do, another person can sway your decision one way or the other.

If you have your heart set on a goal, it’s not easy to suddenly switch gears. But if I had been like Bowen McCoy and wasn’t sure if I was even going to make it over the next pass or not, I would have seen this as a good reason to change my plans. He admitted that his most interesting trip to Nepal was when he lived in a Sherpa home for five days. Likewise, Stephen, the anthropologist, was more interested in people than mountain climbing. So it would still be an interesting and challenging journey. The New Zealander was nice enough to carry the Sadhu back to them, so this was their turn to be good Samaritans. While it’s hard for one person to go against the group, and neither Stephen nor Bowen could have done it alone, together they could have helped the holy man.

I know at high altitudes you have trouble thinking, you’re tired, irritable, on edge, you have to make tough decisions, and sometimes you make poor choices. So there’s some truth in Bowen’s arguments, but it also seems like he’s working overtime to justify his actions. I think the reason why Bowen couldn’t stop thinking about what happened was because he felt guilty, his conscience was bothering him. We all have done something that we later regret. However, I find it ironic that ever since then, he’s been profiting off the poor man’s death by using the incident as subject matter for articles and speeches.

McCoy does make one good point, that common values and a culture based on thoughtful personal values are integral to the success and health of every organization. But what happens when there are conflicting values between the individual and the group? The group is not always right, as happens in GroupThink when group consensus overrides common sense. In cases like these, the individual has three choices: 1.) Stand up for your beliefs, and refuse to engage in actions you think are wrong. 2.) Compromise your beliefs by turning a blind eye and trying not to feel too guilty. 3.) Try to influence the organization to change its behavior.

The members of every organization have an obligation, not only to themselves, but to their stakeholders, as to what is in the best interests of all. In other words, they should not only cater to the needs of the organization and its members or employees, but also consider the needs of the customers, suppliers, and the community at large when making decisions.

On the mountain, even though the travelers and the pilgrim came from diverse countries/cultures, and they had different goals/values, there was one thing they all shared in common with each other – they were all human, and shouldn’t humans look out for each other?

What do you think? Leave a reply!

McCoy, Bowen H. (1983). The Parable of the Sadhu. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

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