A commentary on “THE DIFFICULTY OF BEING GOOD”: a book by Gurcharan Das

On the eve of a six week long parliamentary election in India, I am writing a commentary on a book that I finished reading today. The book is titled “THE DIFFICULTY OF BEING GOOD- on the subtle art of dharma” (2009, Penguin Books) and it is written by Gurcharan Das. In the book, he employs his understanding of the great Indian epic Mahābhāratha to dissect the meaning of ‘dharma’. He traces the evolution of the major characters in the war epic and their internal conflicts. He uses examples from Greek epics, modern history, contemporary political and business issues to draw parallels between the heroes of Mahābhāratha and their quest for dharma. Gurcharan Das (1943-) is an Indian libertarian socio-political commentator who was formerly a CEO of a big company. I had heard him speak in many TV news discussions including the interviews he gave after this book of his was released.

The difficulty of being good
Book cover and the author (courtesy: The Hindu)

For many Indians Mahābhāratha is a book that comprises the holy verses of Bhagavadgeetha. For some others it is also a mirror to their own dilemmas and conflicts in life. But for all Indians, Mahābhāratha is part of their fabric. Each one of us has a favourite character and each one of us relates to one or the other incident in the war epic. Since the book “THE DIFFICULTY OF BEING GOOD” is intended for a world audience, Gurcharan Das chooses to introduce the story of Mahābhāratha in a short introductory chapter. He discusses the Indian obsession with ‘mOksha’ (spiritual liberation) and the need to reclaim the heterogeneity of the Indian tradition. He chooses Mahābhāratha, the story that epitomises human struggle to highlight the sense of balance that should come naturally to the Indian thought, yet some of us have forgotten the essence of Indianness in the process of pursuing either extreme materialism or extreme spiritualism.

Das lays down the blueprint of his book in a well written prelude, which unintentionally almost gives away some of the surprises. He aptly calls his book a journey to reflect the time he spent (nearly six years full-time) immersed studying the epic and gathering evidence to support his inferences. Therefore, to feel his journey, to understand how he finds his way through the maze of Mahābhāratha, it is really worth reading the whole book. The journey also comes to life in the structure of the book as it almost follows the Mahābhāratha’s sequence of events. It occasionally refers to the events in a random order (for rationalization).

The journey begins at the business end of the epic, the days leading to the great war of Kurukshetra.   Duryodhana is seen as the trigger and Yudhishtira is seen as the result. One can even imagine a single person starting as Duryodhana (the evil) and gradually becoming Yudhisthira (the noble). Many Indians still sympathise with Duryodhana (so does Gurcharan Das) as they appreciate his consistent world-view. Das emphasizes Duryodhana’s discontent and envy that leads to the war (the need for discontent to usher social change is also recognized by Mahathma Gandhi).  Yudhishtira’s contemplation during the Pandava exile in the forest and Draupadi’s frustration with his ‘lack of aggression’ are discussed in the context of “the sense of duty and the fear of consequence”.  I have struggled with this idea for almost eight years and I still do not have any answers. For instance, Das says “[Yudhishtira] expresses his [anti-war] feelings so forcefully that one wonders if Krishna might have given his message to the wrong Pandava in the Bhagavadgeetha” (p. 114). I found Gurcharan Das’s very personalized tone of arguments refreshing. Das also says “the ethic of absolute standards and perfection appeals more to those who are far removed from public office like Yushishtira when he is in the forest” (p. 72). It takes 13 years of exile to make Yudhishtira realise the importance of keeping peace. Draupadi cannot understand Yudhishtira during their time in exile. The war happens. She again struggles to console him during his post-war remorse in solitude (p. 240). The art of pragmatism to preserve collective well-being that the author and the epic Mahābhāratha try to uphold should not be confused with the deceit of expediency that people employ to preserve self-interest.

One of the important themes of Mahābhāratha is the conflict between right and wrong. The lines are often blurred. Gurcharan Das refers to the scene of Arjunavishāda and GeethabOdhe from the epic, where Arjuna suffers from a mental breakdown in the middle of Kurukshetra battle field (p. 91). Krishna’s stepwise persuasion of Arjuna is summarized in an easy to understand manner. Most people are very aware of dharma in the context of duty and some people wrongly translate dharma as religion.  Dharma simply means what we think we should do (often, it is not we end up doing). The human thought takes the right path under most circumstances but mortals like us do not heed to its advice as often as we should. Das calls the popular sense of duty ‘swa-dharma’ and uses the characters in the Mahābhāratha to trace their journey from ‘swa-dharma’ to ‘sādhārana dharma’, a universal notion of dharma. This journey is also paraphrased in a single sentence ‘time cooks all beings’, referred to many times in the book. I found this to be a really bad translation of the Sanskrit original “kālah pakāti bhootāni sarvāni” cited by the author. The word ‘pakāti’ has been literally translated to mean ‘to cook’, which seems inappropriate. Time takes us from ‘swa-dharma’ to ‘sādhārana dharma’ and it does so through a natural process of senescence. A fruit ripens over a period of time. It is not cooked. The context is very clear in Mahābhāratha .

Bheeshma is Mahābhāratha’s answer to what one should do in situations of severe conflicts of interest. The book also contrasts Bheeshma with some of the modern day business tycoons and shows how “selflessness does not necessarily make one a moral person” (p. 137). Gurcharan Das’s admiration for Bheeshma comes across strongly in many places and I recommend the chapter on Bheeshma in the book if you can’t read the whole book. Bheeshma and Karna exemplify the virtue of upholding promises, no matter how ‘outlandish’ they may seem. Altruistic behaviour (at least in humans) has no clear explanation in classical interpretation of the theory of natural selection. Many Neo-Darwinians believe there must be something more going on.

The book’s scholarly take on angularities in Karna and the reflections on the status of backward classes in modern India are educational. Karna could not forgive people who looked down upon his identity. His anger is justified in Mahābhāratha and to this day Karna’s virtues are celebrated. However, the massacre of the young children of the Pandavas by Ashwatthama to avenge his father Drona’s death is not forgiven in the epic (Limits to forgiveness, p. 227). Ashwatthama is punished to eternal ghostly existence in wilderness. In one of a handful of places where the book attempts to directly answer the question “What is dharma?” the author chooses Karna to provide an answer. Karna says “true dharma consists in respecting the bonds with those who care and nurture you rather than mere bonds of blood” (p. 168).

Mahābhāratha‘s core concern is the dharma of wars.  Can a war ever be a just war? Earlier in the article I had mentioned the general elections in India.  As a commoner, especially as a writer, I need to be non-partisan and impartial in a public forum or else I would be violating the ‘model code of conduct’. The document released by the Election Commission of India that enlists the code of conduct for political parties during an election is not a statutory guide. It is a set of suggestions that everyone is expected to observe. In other words, it is the chuNāvanā dharma (dharma of an election). All is not fair in love, war and elections.  It is intriguing that when the elections are announced every politician in the fray starts observing the “code of conduct” in letter but rarely in spirit.   We can only hope that people will follow their dharma. It can never be imposed.  As Mahābhāratha highlights, even the godly being (Krishna) does not conform to the standards of ‘sādhārana dharma’ as long as he was on the Earth (a flawed God in a flawed world, p. 201). While I love the romantic master chef, the loving and caring eating champion, the demon slayer, less brain/more heart character of Bheema, it is Yudhishtira who prevails in the end. I think we realise Yudhishtira’s worth and the worth of emulating him very late in our lives. ‘THE DIFFICULTY OF BEING GOOD’ is Gurcharan Das’s journey towards knowing what Yudhishtira stands for. Contrary to popular belief, Das finds Yudhishtira to be neither weak nor indecisive (p 253).


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