The Difficulty of Being Good

The Difficulty of Being Good: On the subtle art of Dharma, is the title of the book written by Gurcharan Das, a voluntarily retired CEO turned into a successful author. The book originally published in 2009 by Penguin India was republished as one of the best-loved 25 titles in 2012. The author by his own confession hit by the third stage melancholy at the age of 50 sets out to find the real purpose of the life by finding out the right path or  approach for himself to move forward. In fact this melancholy has been hitting all of us at various stages of life. What I am doing ? Where i am heading to ? Was it all i intend to do ? What next ? What is the right way ? What does so called great tradition of Indian classics suggest as the right Dharma ? What is right / What is wrong ? In our quest for the right knowledge or samyak gyan or what has been told to us by our parents, teachers, friends, literature, classics and all pervasive media in information age gets us into tailspin many a times. The teachings even contradict. The Dharma Yudha of Mahabharat was won inter alia by insidious manipulations of Pandavas to kill great warriors Bhishma, Drona, Jaidrath and Duryodhan etc almost as treacherously as the killing of Abhimanyu by the wrong sided Kauravas. So what is the the incorrigible Dharma in true sense ?

To find out the answers the author  at the ripe age of 50 with a receding hairline goes on to join the University of Chicago to dig out answers from the Regenstein library with the help of well known faculty of Sanskrit scholars Sheldon Pollock, Wendy Doniger and Steve Collins. Though the author initially thought of going through the classics on all 4 aspects of Dharma, Artha, Kaam and Moksha, he could not go beyond the great Indian one lakh shlokas laced epic Mahabharata. The author getting engrossed in the outstanding characters like Yudhisthira, Arjun, Duryodhana, Draupadi and Bhishma etc has written a beautiful treatise on Dharma by analyzing threadbare the omnipresent and omnipotent human tendencies like envy, courage, duty, despair, status anxiety, guile, revenge and remorse. In writing about them he has used the vast knowledge resources of centuries, from ancient Greek tradition to the latest writings. He has quoted many real life tragedies likes of  Raju of Satyam  Computers and of Ambani brothers’ feud to find out the answers for himself and for his readers. Its a great journey therefore through ages. His comparison of Achilles brutal revenge on Hector by dragging him after death as described in Iliad with the fury of Arjun to kill anybody who comes in between him and Jaidratha after the the deceitful murder of Abhimanyu or the comparison of Ambani brothers’ feud over division of one lakh crore empire on lines of negotiation of pre- mahabharata parleys mediated by Krishna is a great appetizer for any reader to go along and to read the book from start to finish in one go. The author focusing on chapter wise analysis of human tendencies borrows quotes and examples from authors of all walks of life. From Aristotle to Jeremy Bentham to Shakespeare to J S Mill to Sigmund Freud he takes help from the analysis of all great authors  and commentators of the world who had insights to say on the  strands of human nature.

The author taking a rationalist approach demystifies many characters and asks us to see them in a rational way. He sees Dhritrashtra’s agony rationally and highlights the fact of his hard luck of not being able to rule Hastinapur for being blind vis a vis pale Pandu and his son Duryodhan being  born just minutes later than Yudhisthara’s birth through leviration of  Kunti and Dharma. He also brings out the outspoken nature of Draupadi as she faced with ignominy of being disrobed in the durbar not hesitating to ask Yudhisthira and the assembly of Kurus that whether Yudhisthara had lost himself first  or her , in the game of dice. He also presents the dilemmas of Yudhisthira in his efforts to postpone wars after losing at the hands of deceitful Shakuni and still accepting a 13 years vanvas. But once he is chastened by the tough life of Vanvas he goes on to formally declare war on Kauravas and even telling the only lie in his life about Ahwathama in order to facilitate killing of his Guru Drona a sin qua non to win the war. Likewise he analyses the Bhishma’s behaviour in relinquishing his claim to the throne of Hastinapur to his  awkward duty bound presence in the assembly where Draupadi was being disrobed on utterly dubious grounds. He analyses the status anxiety of the eldest of Pandavas but known to the world only as the son of a charioteer. Karna’s unflinching commitment to his friend of bad time and moments,  Duryodhana and his subsequent self annihilation by being with Duryodhana despite offers of Krishna before start of war to be recognized as the eldest of Pandavas and to a right to throne etc is an aspect of human nature worth assessing if not appreciating per se . Krishna’s handling of war and him bearing the brunt of war by being cursed by Gandhari and the ordained annihilation of Yadav clan is also painstakingly handled. The remorse of Yudhisthira as distinguished from regret after the end of war is also to be understood and absorbed. His disenchantment from everything after the hell of a war was handled by a dying Bhishma who reminded him of the dharma of a King. The author does it all through a fine continual thread of interwoven analyses. The author is also aware of the manifestations of use of word Dharma in the secular context and tries his best to disentangle his Dharma from religion. He starts with the knowledge that his quest for right Dharma may  also lead to his negative bracketing by the over jealous secularists, but he continues with his fine logic and quotes liberally from all reliable sources to weave his story. He takes on ambiguities and dilemmas and dissects them in the bright light of logic and reasoning of 21st century and takes help from many real life experiences.

My understanding of the Mahabharata and the Dharma has improved with the reading of the book but it has also sown the seeds of many dilemmas. In the hindsight how could have Yudhisthira reacted to war if he had known before the start of war that revenge would be begetting more revenge only and his victorious kins and army too would be annihilated after the end of war night attack of Ashwatthama. The logic of war too gets questioned in the overall sense of term. The difficulty of being ‘good’ actually is a perennial quest and we need to continually engage ourselves to find the answers. This 300 odd pages book with really useful notes helps. Many of the answers would be coming from outstanding  world wise resources  and repositories of knowledge but perhaps we have to be equally cognizant of the answers coming from our own inside.

The difficulty of Being Good; On the Subtle Art of Dharma by Gurcharan Das (New Delhi:Penguin Books), 2009; pp 311 and notes, Rs 250(paperback)