“The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma”
By Gurcharan Das. Oxford University Press, 433 pages.
In troubled times, when greed and war have stirred terrible moral crises and arrogant political and media figures seem to thrive on dividing the nation, it’s worth pondering whether an ancient epic can offer some prescription. Indian author Gurcharan Das was in Atlanta last week to discuss his formidable book, “The Difficulty of Being Good,” which delves into a fundamental text of Hindu civilization, the Mahabharata, a story of ruinous war between brothers ridden with moral dilemmas, to learn what it can teach us about living better public and private lives.
Das, a rare combination of businessman and philosopher, is a Harvard-educated former CEO of Procter & Gamble India who took early retirement at age 50 to pursue his passion for writing. His analysis of India’s rise to economic power, “India Unbound,” was a best seller in his country. He followed up on its success in an unlikely manner, spending several years in scholarly contemplation of the Sanskrit classics, particularly the Mahabharata, at the University of Chicago, the foremost institution of Sanskrit scholarship. As Das writes in his introduction, his hope was to discover some guideposts to moral behavior today in the story of an apocalyptic war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, the families of two brothers caught in a dismal fratricidal conflict marked by deceit and honor, villainy and good, egotism and selflessness.
Though he began the exercise of reading the Indian classics as “a project in self-cultivation,” Das also despaired over national problems such as India’s endemic corruption and bad governance at a time of unprecedented economic growth. Why couldn’t India become good when it was doing well, he appears to have asked himself, as we might question other failings in the United States.
Speaking at Georgia Tech, Das mentioned the tremendous envy created among Americans by inflated Wall Street bonuses and CEO salaries that are up to 400 times the average worker’s pay. What is the resolution to such a situation? “How do we decide the right thing to do? And who should our decision serve?” seemed to be universal questions underlying Das’ philosophical journey through a vast book to find “the right way to live in the world.”
For readers unfamiliar with the sprawling 2,000-year-old narrative, Das helpfully begins with a concise summary of the action and descriptions of the key characters. The book’s most famous chapter, about a soldier’s moral quandary on the battlefield, is familiar to many Americans as the Bhagavad-Gita. Though we may not share many of the values of Hindu society two millennia ago, Das points out that human nature has not changed much from the time the Mahabharata was composed — envy, resentment and greed remain some of the prime motivators that propel the “I” forward in society. But so, too, he points out, does the desire to do good, to be just.
“On the Subtle Art of Dharma” is the subtitle of Das’ book, and indeed the Mahabharata, which he reads with tremendous perception and finesse, has dharma — duty or virtuous action — as its central answer to the question “How can one be good?” Nothing makes the Indian mentality more different from the rugged individualism celebrated in America than this stress on living a dutiful life, steadfastly fulfilling one’s familial and other obligations. “Dharma … is the moral law that sustains society, the individual and the world,” Das writes.
Thus, in the famous Bhagavad-Gita chapter, when the Pandava commander Arjuna dithers over going to battle against his own family members, friends and teachers — anguished over killing those he loves, though they have usurped his kingdom — his charioteer, Lord Krishna, invokes Arjuna’s duty as a warrior as his justification to fight. He is a solider, so he must fight; that is the most commonly accepted message of the Mahabharata. Doing your duty is the right thing. Arjuna is not persuaded, so Krishna offers another famous tenet of the Gita: act for the sake of your work, without thought of reward, and your action will be the right one.
Das continues his interpretation where the popular interpretation stops: Arjuna is not persuaded even by God’s — Krishna’s — arguments. Finally Krishna reveals his fearsome divine aspect and Arjuna is cowed. And then Krishna tells Arjuna, now that he has been offered an array of knowledge, that it is up to him to decide what to do. “‘Act as you choose’ — these are remarkable words from the mouth of God!” Das writes. By highlighting this statement, he offers a brilliant corrective to the caricature of Hinduism as a fatalistic religion.
Yet the Mahabharata “is suspicious of ideology,” Das notes, even the doctrine of dharma. The good Pandava king Yudhishthira, peace-loving, principled, always upholding his end of a bargain to the letter with the treacherous Kaurava king Duryodhana, is not held up as any example. His idealism and extreme virtue are rejected. “The Mahabharata’s position on right conduct is pragmatic,” Das states, and “the dharma of a political leader cannot be moral perfection.” Instead, the individual is encouraged toward what Das calls “a reciprocal altruism: adopt a friendly face to the world but do not allow yourself to be exploited. Turning the other cheek sends a wrong signal to cheats.”
In his talk at Georgia Tech, Das concluded that the Mahabharata espouses that “good moral reasoning is the foundation of good moral action.” Dharma is a flexible notion that does not propose any kind of absolutism, such as commandments. Ambiguity is what Das seems to find most appealing about the Hindu tradition. There is a certain intellectual grandeur in imagining every man a potential moral hero, one who ponders deeply what is right, but the practice of sophisticated ethical deliberation on a broad scale is naturally impossible. Few are equipped for it.
Society requires simple principles of moral conduct. For Indians, it is dharma in its limited sense of duty — if you’re a mother, nurture; if you’re a farmer, plow — that is something everyone can understand, no matter how badly they execute it. The essential message of the Mahabharata, Das remarked, is “where you are insufficient as a person, this is where you need to change yourself.” Most of us recognize our insufficiencies in those flashes when we’re not trying to cover them up, but to change them … How do we begin? The Mahabharata leaves us to our own devices, in Das’ considered view, to a moral individualism where there are no ready answers.