The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma
By: Gurcharan Das
Publisher: New Delhi: Allen Lane (Penguin), 2009.
In this book a self-professed ‘liberal and secular’ Indian, who approaches the Hindu way of life with a ‘mixture of scepticism and sympathy’, describes his quest to learn ‘how to live a secular life in a better way’. Retired from a successful career in business, he had come to feel a certain melancholy about the state of morality in the business world in India, and in the modern world as a whole. In the spirit of the ‘third stage’ of Hindu life, in which after living a householder’s life one retires to the forest, he decided to take a two-year ‘sabbatical’ at the University of Chicago.
Oddly, given his modern liberal outlook, Western education and secular associations, he decided to pursue his quest through study of one of the founding texts of Indian religion and culture, the great Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, the sprawling tale of a war between feuding cousins that has kept India and much of Asia spell-bound for two millennia. He chose the Mahabharata as his object of study precisely because it is “obsessed with questions of right and wrong – it analyzes human failures constantly…. In the Indian epic, harmony and happiness come to a society only through behaviour based on dharma – a complex word that means variously virtue, duty and law, but is chiefly concerned with doing the right thing.”
Studying the text with rudimentary Sanskrit skills acquired long back and with scholarly English translations, he also read widely in modern scholarship not only on the Mahabharata but also on Hinduism and modern moral philosophy. The result of the author’s labours is a book that brings to bear both the tales of the Mahabharata itself, which orchestrate, with exquisite precision, one monumental ethical dilemma after another, and the latest philosophical and scientific thinking about human morality.
The Mahabharata demonstrates constantly that dharma is elusive and obscure; more specifically, it is ‘subtle’ (sukshma). Dying of thirst, answering the riddles posed by a tree spirit barring his way to water, the hero of the epic Yudhishthira declares that, in seeking dharma, “Reason is of limited use for it is without foundation; neither are the sacred texts helpful as they are at odds with one another; nor is there a single sage whose opinion could be considered authoritative. The truth about dharma is hidden in a cave.”
Much of the drama and poignancy of the Mahabharata operates precisely at the moral-ethical level, posing dilemmas that have not only no easy answers but, looked at from our level, no answers at all. Despite their uncertainties, the actors cannot evade the awe-inspiring consequences of their moral choices, paying heavily for their mistakes. On top of this, the world itself is shown to be ‘uneven’, ‘out of joint’, often dealing out bitter defeat to the righteous while richly rewarding the wrongdoers.
The author finds that the Mahabharata propounds and analyzes, in sophisticated fashion, most of the ethical theories now debated among moral philosophers. For example, the epic proposes the theory of utilitarianism or consequentialism, according to which one chooses that act that generates the most benefit overall: “To save the family, [one must] abandon an individual. To save the village, abandon a family; to save the country, abandon the village.” This is the moral logic mostly used by those in political power. But, because it implies that ends may justify means, it can lead to abuses – as the characters of the Mahabharata discover to their regret. An opposing theory, more idealistic, is that of ‘good for good’s sake’, upholding virtue in every action regardless of consequences. As Yudhishthira puts it, “I do not act for the sake of the fruits of dharma. I act because I must. Whether it bears fruits or not, … I do my duty like any householder … I obey dharma … not for its rewards … but by its nature my mind is beholden to dharma.”
Entwined with his explorations of moral thinking, the author, Gurcharan Das relates the potent stories of the Mahabharata. Early in the epic, just as Yudhishthira is to be consecrated as universal sovereign according to ancient rites, moral catastrophe strikes. A dice game must be played as part of the ritual, but things go wrong when Yudhishthira, who has a weakness for gambling but no skill, is enticed into a lengthy game. He continually loses, but keeps on playing even though he knows his opponents are cheating. He loses not only his kingdom, but himself and his brothers and wife – all reduced to slavery. As his wife is brought into the assembly, and attempts are made to humiliate her, she cries out searing challenges to all the nobles present, on how they can explain – and justify in terms of dharma – what has happened. None can respond, and her questions resonate unanswered throughout the epic.
Eventually, after twists and turns, a great battle ensues. On the one side are the five Pandava brothers led by Yudhishthira and allied with Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, while on the other side are the one hundred Kaurava brothers, led by the amoral but heroic Duryodhana. At every turn, moral quandaries present themselves, and the Pandavas are often forced into moral compromises. The question is repeatedly posed: when must abstract, ideal moral principles bend? For example, should truth always be told? Yudhishthira, who is known never to lie, tells a half-truth to vanquish a rival. In another context, his virtuous uncle Bhishma declares that, while there is “nothing higher than truth, … the thing most difficult to understand in the whole world … is that truth should not be spoken and that falsehood should be spoken, where falsehood would be truth, and truth falsehood. Someone simple is dumbfounded in that circumstance where truth is not fixed.”
Ironically, it is often Krishna who puts an end to moral dilemmas by convincing the Pandavas to compromise their principles. Seemingly, by breaking rules, devising stratagems, and working miracles, Krishna symbolizes the transcendent dimension in human affairs, predetermining outcomes and directing human history.
The Pandava brothers do in the end narrowly prevail, but only at the cost of the deaths of nearly all their kinsmen. Their victory seems hollow, and eventually, tired of worldly pomp and power, they renounce their kingdom and start their journey towards the next world. All fall by the wayside except Yudhishthira. He trudges on, but is soon joined by a stray dog who shows him loyalty. Indra in his heavenly chariot appears to carry Yudhishthira to heaven. Yudhishthira asks to bring the dog with him to heaven, in fulfillment of his duty not to abandon one who shows him devotion, even a dog considered religiously unclean. When told that dogs may not go to heaven, Yudhishthira refuses heaven itself in obedience to his duty. Immediately the dog transforms into the god Dharma, explaining that Yudhishthira was only being tested. Because he ‘weeps with all creatures’, he has ‘no equal in heaven’.
At the end of his book, Gurcharan Das declares that he finds in the Mahabharata the redeeming guidance he sought when setting out on his quest. He has learned that, for humans in an imperfect world, doing good is difficult. At our unenlightened level, our concepts, reasoning, laws, social habits, cultural conventions and religious doctrines don’t take us far. We are often forced to compromise on concepts we thought were absolute. We also carry the burden of specific obligations entailed by our roles in politics, society or family. To follow dharma, to do good, requires great diligence. On the one hand, we must interrogate our own motives, struggling to transcend our egoistic point of view. On the other hand, we must resist the opinions of others and question prevailing convention. Finally, the author argues, whether or not we believe in God or have faith in some religion or dogma makes little difference; it is a struggle either way. At our level there are no short cuts and no perfect answers.
In his final pages, Gurcharan Das chooses to focus on dharma as altruism, or in Yudhishthira’s words, “the ancient [quality of] compassion for the welfare of all creatures.” He argues that altruism is innate in human nature, even programmed in us through evolution, though following it is still a matter of individual choice. He advocates a middle path by which pragmatism and self-interest are strongly tempered by concern for others, by a desire to help all. He believes that this was the path that Yudhishthira came to in the end, and by which he earned redemption. He concludes: “Yudhishthira demonstrates that an act of goodness might be one of the very few things of genuine worth in this world.”
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.