“The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living” — Socrates
Doing a review of Mr. Das’s extraordinary work “The Difficulty of being Good” is like trying to describe Sistine Chapel to a blind person. Yet, I am going to make a sincere effort in doing this because like Yudhistira says “I must”. Since Indian philosophy unfortunately is fused with religion (“Hinduism” is not an organized religion around one book or one person), it’s hard for people to directly compare Mahabharata to Ancient Greek works of philosophers like Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. It’s not taught in school since it has religiousness attached to it. Like Mr. Das himself says, if kids in Italy can read “The Divine Comedy”, why can’t kids in India learn Mahabharata? Especially if doing so could make them better human beings?
I would like to call Ramayana and Mahabharata, Indian tragedies, much like Greek Tragedies. Both end up causing tremendous agony to the reader by the way they end. But, ironically they both teach the reader about the value of life through tragedy. Both are attributed to two different authors but it’s likely that these works were authored over centuries with multiple redux versions. Much like the works of Aristophanes and Sophocles, these works are filled with deep human emotion, melodrama, fatalistic suffering and moral dilemmas. In both the epics, all the protagonists end their avatars after completing an odyssey that is filled with great suffering, longing, warring and separation from loved ones. Hence, I think they are much like the Greek tragedies. Now, tragedy is a strange emotion. when projected on external parties, it has the power to cleanse the audiences’ emotional state of being and give them a sense of relief grown from utter despair. That’s called catharsis. Different people find catharsis though different mediums, some through music, some through artwork and others through writings. I believe this magnum opus of Mr. Das, is his own catharsis.
By constantly craving to understand “dharma” and “dharmic religions”, by constantly taking out examples from current day world and juxtaposing the same to Mahabharatha’s world, he brings a perspective that is awe-inspiring, beautiful as well as pragmatic. By vicariously questioning the existential angst of the human condition and sometimes answering the same through these projections, Mr. Das tells a tale that is filled with anguish, suffering and pessimism yet somehow manages to create a light at the end of a turbulent and dark tunnel.
Mahabharata is carved into 18 books. It tells the story of an ancient Indian royal family. The crux of the book (or books) tells the story of warring cousins who both claim a right to their ancestor’s kingdom. Who is the legal heir to the throne is actually not a matter of grey. Yudhistira, the eldest of all the cousins (105 in total), is first in line for the succession. But his cousin, Duryodhana, usurps the kingdom through a fraudulent game of dice and sends Yudhistira and his four younger brothers into exile. After returning from a fourteen year exile, Yudhistira requests his share of the kingdom, only to be denied even a single province. This leads to a great war between the two families, in which Yudhistira “wins”. This is the basic plot of Mahabharata in a single paragraph. But the epic itself is seven times larger than Iliad and the Odyssey combined. It’s the largest literary work ever written by mankind.
Mr. Gurcharan Das, educated in philosophy after which he became a senior manager at a world-class company before voluntarily retiring, authored “The Difficulty of being Good” with a deep passion as well as deep detachment. To his credit, he does not treat Krishna as the God while trying to understand the denouements of his actions. I believe this brings a sense of fairness into place. If you are aware of the stories within stories of this epic, you would agree that it becomes very easy to be deterministic if you choose the protagonist to be divine. We can just say, “Hey, it was meant to me. This is God’s will”. But the ensuing suffering is human. So why would God want humans to suffer so as to make a point?
Being an Indian himself, the author knew the Mahabharata inside out (of course he spent years studying the same under scholars at the University of Chicago), but he does not assume his reader to know the same. His erudition shines through across various chapters, in which he relates the dilemmas from the ancient epic to the problems of the modern world. He astutely tackles the complex episodes of this ancient prose with remarkable objectivity. He constantly compares and contrasts Mahabharatha’s philosophy to that of the Western world. He writes freely and in an easy to understand compare/contrast format about the teachings of some of the greatest philosophers such as Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, Kant, J. S. Mill and others. Breaking down his work into a few sections, he constantly exposes current issues by contrasting them to the issues in Mahabharata.
Writing on Duryodhana’s envy, which in the first place creates all the problems in the epic, he exposes, the envy that caused the chasm in Reliance, the largest Indian company. He compares the silence of Bhishma to that of India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, while picking an able person as the next President of India. Had Draupadi been alive in this age, she would have questioned the corrupt Indian bureaucrats about their dharma in delivering basic services to the Indian masses. He questions his own glory-seeking trends when writing about Karna’s constant status anxiety. He questions if George Bush Jr. felt the despair of Arjuna before going to war in Iraq. To me, these are astounding comparisons, which never crossed my own mind although they now seem so obvious now. This a mark of a man who is deeply moved by this epic and has keenly observed these characters in a detached way. These are some of the marks of Mr. Das’s burning intellect.
By comparing Yudhistira’s deep remorse after the war to that of Ashoka’s, Mr. Das makes a point that maybe this was the work of a different author working during the Budhist times of 400BC. By drawing inferences from the works of Greek philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Sophocles and interspersing those ideas with that of Descartes, Locke, Rawls, Mill and others, Mr. Das creates a rich and complex moral web of life that will keep this book a living embodiment of what the elusive dharma is. If dharma is subtle as Bhishma says, how are we ever supposed to know what it is? If dharma is the right thing to do, who is to define what the right thing is? If Hitler’s deplorable acts and heinous crimes were committed in the name of the right thing for him, is dharma personal (to him) or is it universal (for us and the allied forces)?
The author gives a superb introduction to the evolution of the word dharma, from Rig Vedic (1500 BC) times till the current day. That’s the evolution of this elusive work over an approximate period of 3,500 years. That time-scale starting now in 2010 would end up in the year 5510. I wonder what dharma would come to mean then!
I have a lot of takeaways from this book. In a world like we are living in today, it’s not easy to be a good person. That is how capitalism/democracy has evolved in the last 100 or so years. Capitalism follows the Darwinian dictum that it’s only the tough who survive. So how could one be tough and good at the same time? It’s difficult to be good when an honest man looks at the wealth a corrupt politician and thinks “look what being good gave me”. That’s what Draupadi asks Yudhistira in the forest, “why are we suffering while that evil Duryodhana is enjoying all the luxuries of the world?” I think what Yudhistira says here is a lesson for all us. He says, “I do this because I must”. There is a certain Faustian tragedy attached to all our lives currently, because we just cannot understand the nobility of Yudhistira’s words.
To be a corporate leaders, they say you have to be tough, make tough choices and kill competition at all costs and so on. Following this sutra, you can argue for and against companies like Microsoft for their conduct over the past decade. Haters can call this company a bully, innovation-killer and so on and so forth and followers can say that MSFT created a lot of shareholder wealth. But in the process was damage done to competitors and others? I am sure it must have, and I am also sure that Microsoft was following exactly what Milton Friedman said all those decades back, “a company’s only job is to make money”. Point being, if the world was Microsoft’s Kurukshektra, it was waging a war, sometimes immoral (like the slaying the Bhishma if you will) and sometimes, moral. Again, it’s difficult being good and it’s also challenging to understand what dharma is. To follow a “swadharma” (personal dharma), and still go with these draconian times, seems more logical than following “sadharana dharma” (universal dharma). But, at the same time, it’s important to constantly know what the right thing to do is, whether it’s not polluting the environment or not doing immoral activities. Gulf of Mexico is immoral but it’s because we demand gas that drove BP to deep sea. Doing so, BP delivered shareholder returns pretty well in the past few decades but at what cost? A cost whose negatives are “externalized” and a tragedy whose pathos is “commonized”.
As we flow like twigs in this water, trying to live a detached yet attached life, we are looking around for meaning to this journey. It was Socrates who said “The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living” and we are all in the throes of examining and defining some meaning to this bio-chemical reaction. The great point the book makes at the end is trying to give more meaning to this existential angst by telling that its compassion that is needed to lead a fulfilling life.
When Yudhistira steadfastly refuses to enter heaven if his dog is not allowed into it, that’s when we realize that compassion for the world we live and compassion for fellow creatures is actually what makes us human. Yudhistira’s observation from his strife-filled life is that dharma is compassion. It’s not only about doing that elusive right thing, but also doing it with compassion. “The Difficult of being Good” is a stupendous work and personally it helped me in my quest to understand my own dharma as well as the dharma of these times. This is not a book to be read and recommended, it’s a book to be referenced for the rest of my life.
The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma; Das, Gurcharan; Penguin India; Allen Lane; Rs. 699