Business Times, Singapore, October 2 2009, by Parvathi Nayar

On the face of it, it's an absurd proposition: that the study of a lengthy Sanskrit text written thousands of years ago can shed light on the workings of today's competitive, capitalist economy. Yet that's exactly what Gurcharan Das sets out to do in his latest book, The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma. In it, the former chief executive of Procter & Gamble India and managing director of Procter & Gamble Worldwide (Strategic Planning) brings the ideas and moralities of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, into contemporary life. Das took early retirement in 1995 at age 50 to become a full-time writer and produced such bestsellers as India Unbound. In 2002, he went on an "academic holiday" at the University of Chicago where he studied Sanskrit and focused intensively on the epic. "I was an improbable student – a husband, a father of two adult sons, and a taxpayer with far less hair than his peers," he tells BT.  The right thing  Central to the Mahabharata, and therefore to Das' new book, is the intangible concept of "dharma", which effectively means, "doing the right thing". But as the title of Das's book tells us, dharma is "subtle", because the Mahabharata doesn't offer absolute dictates on how one must act – it is dependent on context, intentions and outcomes. "I examine how the Mahabharata is a contestation between two kinds of righteous action – the dharma of the individual who belongs to a certain profession, and a larger universal dharma," explains Das. "Thus, Arjuna (a character in the Mahabharata) is thrown into confusion when he realises that as a warrior it is his duty or dharma to fight; yet by doing so thousands of people will die, so how can fighting then be 'doing the right thing'?   The Mahabharata is also a contest between intentions behind an action and the consequences of that action, between pragmatism and ideals." The Mahabharata is an unwieldy text and Das has chosen to approach it in three distinct ways: ie, Difficulty comprises the deconstruction of the epic, its retelling with examples from our time and a large scholarly appendix. Das also includes a section on the Mahabharata's story – a device that will feel repetitive to Indian readers but is useful to those approaching the epic for the first time.  At the core of Das's book are chapters based on principal characters of the epic, such as the heroic Arjuna or the villainous Duryodhana. Das examines how powerful emotions – such as Arjuna's despair or Duryodhana's envy – lead to specific courses of action; he then discusses the issues of moral right and wrong that these actions set into play.  Such discursive philosophy does not make for lighthearted reading, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the subject – even if the prose is very straightforward, and the ideas stated with reference to world politics, philosophy and history. The book's real hook are the parallels drawn between the Mahabharata and the business world, such as India's largest corporate scandal, the fraudulent dealings of Satyam Computers' Ramalinga Raju, or India's most public corporate soap opera, the infighting between the Ambani bothers. Rather than simple greed, Das shows the former as having roots in dynastic desires, and the latter in a specific kind of envy.  On the same evening as our interview, Das delivered a lecture on the Dharma of Capitalism at the Madras Chamber of Commerce, where he discussed ideas from his book. It was followed by a lively debate that highlighted the mistrust currently felt against capitalism as a structure that overly rewards those on top. Das responded that while "capitalism – and democracy – are flawed systems, it's the best we have at the moment". "Entrepreneurs make real contributions to the economy and their huge earnings are actually a small price to pay for bringing up the standard of living of so many people; at no other time in our history has there been such an extensive middle class."  Pragmatic text  And, going back to the epic: "The Mahabharata is a pragmatic text that tells you the world is an uneven place of moral haziness. Dharma is the tool with which to even out this playing field." Will the business world embrace Difficulty as a corporate tool like, say, Sun Tzu's Art of War? Well, it offers an interesting blend of Indian philosophy, realpolitik and business, among other things, but as Das himself says, "this is not a self-help book – but then, neither is the Mahabharata". As to whether a life of acting righteously is only an aspirational quality or something actually possible, Das leaves us with this thought in the last paragraph of his book: "An act of goodness is one of the few genuine things of worth in the world." 

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