“What is here is found elsewhere. What is not here is nowhere.” – The Mahabharata I.56.34-35
The Mahabharata, one of India’s two major Sanskrit epics (the other being the Ramayana), is a supreme achievement of the human intellect and imagination. Seven times the sum of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in length, it is the story of a terrible and futile war of annihilation between two factions of cousins (supposedly hundred demons in human form against five sons of gods) that takes place in “Kurukshetra”, today a city in the north Indian state of Haryana. A comparison to the destructive Peloponnesian War fought between Athens and Sparta around 431-404 BC would not be unreasonable.
Woven into the grand martial narrative of the Mahabharata, which was gradually composed between 400 BC and 300 AD, is much religious instruction and philosophical speculation. The epic is a seminal text on the nature of “dharma”, which, although in the conversational Hindi of contemporary India simply means “religion”, is essentially an untranslatable word. “Law”, “duty”, “morality”, “one’s lot in life”, “custom” and “goodness” all come close. How can we – Hindu and non-Hindu, Eastern or Western – in the twenty-first century make sense of what the Mahabharata was trying to say about dharma? Can we recover a meaningful ideal of civic virtue from this ancient text today? Can its complexities shed light on our current ethical dilemmas?
In The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma, the Indian public intellectual Gurcharan Das is on a mission to explore these questions. Born in 1943 in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad, Pakistan) in British India, Gurcharan Das grew up in Shimla and Delhi. He later went to Harvard University where he was taught by the philosopher John Rawls, the Sanskritist Daniel Ingalls, the Lutheran theologian Paul Tilich and the former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Since his early retirement from the corporate world (he worked for Procter & Gamble), Das has been a columnist for The Times of India. He has also written opinion pieces for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and Foreign Affairs.
Das considers himself a liberal and secular Hindu. He is uncomfortable with both sides of the Indian political spectrum. The Right-wing Hindu nationalists, he says, are inclined to fundamentalism and bigotry whereas the Left-wing secularists, in their desire to appear open-minded and accommodating tend to too easily overlook and devalue the achievements of classical Indian culture. This thorough personal study and interrogation of the Mahabharata was conducted not at the holiest shrines of India but at the University of Chicago when Das was suffering from “third stage melancholy”. [The Hindu way of life is divided into 4 roles, each corresponding to a stage: The Student/Celibate (brahmacharya), the Householder/Worldly Individual who seeks career success and pleasure (grihastha), the Retiree who hands over his responsibilities to the younger generation and gradually begins to withdraw from the world (vanasprastha) and finally the Renouncer who gets detached from material life and seeks spiritual liberation from human bondage (sannyasa).]
2. STRUCTURE AND SALIENT POINTS
One need not read the whole of the Mahabharata to enjoy Gurcharan Das’s book. A summary with a neat genealogical table is duly provided therein. For now, a short Britannica essay by UChicago-based scholar of Hinduism Wendy Doniger can help. To those who are really interested in immersing themselves in the narrative, however, I recommended a brilliant abridged translation worked out by the Cambridge Sanskritist John D. Smith. The Difficulty of Being Good is divided into 10 chapters, all except the last of which examine a certain trait (could be a virtue or a vice) of a particular character of the epic.
The warring factions of the Mahabharata – the hundred Kauravas and the five Pandavas – descendants of the Bharata clan, have a complicated genealogical history of oaths, boons, curses, blindness, impotency and secret sexual alliances. As a result, a rivalry over the succession to the imperial throne (the capital city is called Hastinapura, located around modern-day Delhi) develops naturally. To avert a conflict, the blind Dhritarashtra (father of the Kauravas) divides the kingdom and offers the barren half to his younger brother Pandu’s sons (Pandu is impotent and has turned into a wandering hermit. The five Pandavas are not his “real” sons. His first wife Kunti gave birth to Yudhisthira, Arjuna and Bhima and second wife Madri to Nakula and Sahadeva after mating with the gods).
Despite their disadvantages, the Pandavas work hard and build an impressive capital city called Indraprastha – something the eldest Kaurava Duryodhana cannot stand. After attending Yudhisthira’s grand ceremony of consecration, he devises a scheme with his shrewd uncle Shakuni of ruining his cousin by usurping his kingdom through a rigged game of dice. In (i) Duryodhana’s Envy, Gurcharan Das comments on the ubiquitous human tendency to feel discontent at the success of others. The Machiavellian Duryodhan admits to being “scorched by envy”. As an ardent believer in and practitioner of realpolitik, he vows to attack and obliterate his opponents before they are able to encroach upon his territory. Envy, Duryodhana’s defect, which can manifest itself both as healthy competitiveness or an eternal sickness has been managed and mitigated in different societies in different ways. In our time, explains Das, if greed is considered the vice of capitalism (think Wall Street), then envy has to be the vice of socialism (as in the erstwhile USSR). Humans tend to be more troubled by the possessions and achievements of their fellow humans when income inequalities are only minor.
In the gambling match, Yudhisthira does end up losing everything. Even his wife Draupadi is wagered away (she’s also the “accidental” wife of the other four Pandavas). She is dragged into the assembly and humiliated and not one person comes to her rescue. Her bold demand for public and personal accountability is reflected upon in (ii) Draupadi’s Courage.
The Pandavas are ordered to spend twelve years in the forest in exile and an extra thirteenth in disguise in the society. Draupadi is shocked at Yudhisthira’s lack of retaliation. Why be so good – why not raise an army? In (iii) Yudhishthira’s Duty, Das examines the merits and the limits of Yudhisthira’s duty-bound (“deontological”) position, which is similar to that of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Yudhisthira chooses to remain pacific because “he must”. Vidura, Dhritarashtra’s half-brother and chamberlain, had proposed an alternative consequence-based (“teleological”) ethic, similar to that of the 18th- and 19th-century British Utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, which the Pandavas had not paid heed to. He had advised Yudhisthira to sacrifice a small portion of his kingdom to save the whole (this trade-off is dramatically explored in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1880 magnum opus The Brothers Karamazov in a conversation between the characters Ivan and Alyosha about the price of torturing one child for the attainment of some final, eternal peace and harmony.)
Anyway, after thirteen years, when the Pandavas return to reclaim their inheritance, Duryodhana is unmoved. Peace negotiations ensue with Krishna as leader (Krishna – who is technically an avatar of the god Vishnu and sometimes elevated to the status of Supreme God – is, within the epic, son of the Vrishni king Vasudeva. He is a relative and friend of the Pandavas). The Kauravas are intractable and war becomes the last resort. On the battlefield, when the Pandava Arjuna sees his kinsmen before him, he gets weak and wavers. His bow slips from his hands and he declares that he shall not fight. That’s when Krishna, his charioteer, resorting to his divine identity and authority and goads him into attacking the enemy. Krishna situates the battle in a cosmic context and persuades Arjuna to perform his actions with a sense of detachment. In (iv) Arjuna’s Despair, Gurcharan Das talks about Krishna’s philosophical speech-poem, the world-famous Bhavagad Gita (which the German philosopher G.W. F. Hegel did not particularly appreciate but which was referred to admirably by T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets of 1943). Such disinterested, selfless execution of duty, though noble and attractive, comes with its own problems. What if one is torn between two (or more) types of duty? In the epic there is a huge tension between two dharmas of Arjuna – one specific, that of his warrior (kshatriya) caste, the other general, that of an ordinary human being. Also, duty-for-duty’s-sake alone does not necessarily make one commit useful and valuable actions – worst possible example of this case would be the trial of the Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust, who defended himself against the charge of killing six million Jews by appealing to dictates of obligation. [(v) Bhishma’s Selflessness; Bhishma is great-uncle of Pandavas and Kauravas].
In (vi) Karna’s Status Anxiety, we meet the Karna – secret, abandoned child of Kunti (with the sun-god; born before the Pandavas) raised by a lowly charioteer and his wife. Karna, whose romantic approaches were spurned by Draupadi, fights for the Kauravas. Das explores issues related to social stratification through the examples of blacks in America and untouchables in India. Later, Krishna’s repeated tricks of deceit are recounted in (vii) Krishna’s Guile. He helps the Pandavas overpower leading figures of the Kaurava army – Karna, Bhishma, Drona (archery teacher) and Duryodhana – when they are in vulnerable positions. After the Pandavas win the war, their camp is set on fire at night by Drona’s son Ashwatthama [(viii) Ashwatthama’s Revenge]. Everyone, except the five Pandavas, Draupadi and Krishna, perishes in an orgy of slaughter. Krishna then punishes Ashwatthama for this heinous deed by dooming him to wander the earth alone for three thousand years. Even though he has emerged victorious, Yudhisthira bemoans his empty kingdom [(ix) Yudhishthira’s Remorse]. He is tempted to turn into a renouncer but is able to cool his burning grief when lectured by great-uncle Bhishma (who is not yet dead, and is speaking from a bed of arrows) on statesmanship and the responsibility of kings. Krishna dies a banal death; he is killed by a hunter on a river bank who mistakes his foot for a bird. The Pandavas rule for thirty-six years but, after that, disillusioned, leave for the Himalayas. One by one, they fall and die on the way. After a few more arduous tests of character, Yudhisthira finally ascends into heaven.
In the final chapter (x) Mahabharata’s Dharma, remarks that the epic exalts two particular virtues – ahimsa (non-violence) and anrishamsya (benevolence). The moral temper of the narrative remains pragmatic. It lies between the egoistic amorality of Duryodhan and the altruistic supermorality of the pre-exile Yudhisthira. The Mahabharata, for Gurcharan Das, supports the position of reciprocal altruism (a much studied ethical concept in evolutionary biology) – which expects an individual to do good deeds without letting others take advantage of their goodness. Although the epic understands that much in life is beyond the control of human behaviour and subject to fate (daiva), it does not make light of a human being’s ability to think for themselves and make rational choices.
Other notable aspects of this book were the author’s reading of the Mahabharata‘s concerns about the politics of war in light of the Just War Theory of the Catholic Church [significantly outlined by the Sts. Augustine (354-430 AD) and Aquinas (1225-1274)] and the treaties and protocols of the Geneva Conventions regarding humanitarian issues in armed conflict formulated over the 19th and 20th centuries.
3. WHAT I APPRECIATED/WHY YOU MAY WANT TO READ THIS BOOK
I enjoyed the way the author extracts the fundamental themes of the epic and connects them with Western literary and philosophical texts – ancient, medieval and modern. His ability to establish links between the world of the Mahabharata and our contemporary condition without imposing one on the other is also highly admirable. This is an exposition truly for the international reader.
4. DEFICIENCIES, AMBIGUITIES AND OTHER PROBLEMS
There is very little to not like about this work. Its arguments are extremely refined and careful. There were two areas, nonetheless, which did not go down very well with me. First, Gurcharan Das applauds the the Mahabharata for its frank treatment of sexuality – a topic he thinks that Christian texts are “horrified” of. Like innumerable post-Christian Westerners, the author thinks that Christianity is opposed to sensuality. I’m aware that this is an extremely fashionable idea and, I believe, that it is terribly misinformed and misleading. Yes, there have been certain sects of Christianity that have exhibited a suspicion towards pleasure but in its essence, the religion does not stand for a denial of desire per se. Given its Hebrew roots, Christianity is not meant to be against a celebration of material realities. Any brand of it that exhibits such a disposition is not fully itself and has been compromised by strands of philosophies like Platonism and Manichaeism. The Christian directive to keep the erotic impulse within a long-term, committed, monogamous context does not translate into repression, rather it is a mode of harnessing sexual energy in a disciplined manner such that the dignity of individuals is honoured and societal order is maintained. Second, Das states in the beginning that his goal is to recover an ideal of civic virtue from the epic. The average individual, I think, primarily becomes ethical (to echo Aristotle) by imitating the deeds of virtuous persons. The Mahabharata is overall an intense cautionary tale that is more interested in showing us what we must not to do rather than what we must do. This means that the common man gets only half his dharma education by study of the epic. For the other half, they require more optimistic narratives with fewer ambiguities and lapses of judgement on display. I wish Das had raised this point.
5. CONCLUDING REMARKS
An engaging and unforgettable read that will introduce the reader to a wide body of scholarly literature on diverse and important topics and at the same time, prompt them to engage in serious ethical introspection. I rate it 9/10.
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Preview The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma by Gurcharan Das and John D. Smith’s translation of The Mahabharata.