Hindustan Times, New Delhi, September 11, 2009, by N. Chandra Mohan

As in the case of Gurcharan Das, it was my grandmother who introduced me to the Mahabharata in my childhood. Das returned to the epic later on in life and as his lucidly written book The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma shows, the author has used it as a base to understand the present, including the nature of capitalism.

Classics like the Mahabharata, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid have a timeless appeal. But one should guard against reading too much into their relevance to understand our times. The late Robert Fagles, whose translations of the above-mentioned books by Homer and Virgil became bestsellers, was asked by a reporter after the US invaded Iraq in 2003, “Is there a Rumsfeld in The Iliad?” Fagles replied: “Not that I know of, but isn’t one enough?”

On the face of it, to expect the Mahabharata to shed light on the global economic crisis appears a bit of a stretch. The Mahabharata believes that human beings are flawed, making our world full of unevenness, rendering us vulnerable to nasty surprises.

Each of the major heroes have their failings. Dhritarashtra is blind to his eldest son’s faults. Duryodhana’s  monumental envy is the driving force of calamity in the epic. Arjuna despairs over killing his kinsmen. The virtuous Yudhishthira has a weakness for gambling. The flaws of epic heroes show how difficult it is to be good in a world of moral haziness.

This tale of a family in crisis is a metaphor, in Das’s book, for the economic upheavals that have engulfed the world. Capitalism may be a mode of production but it also shapes the nature of social relations between human beings who buy and sell goods in the market.

There are similar parallels throughout the book. Investment bankers on Wall Street suffered from similar moral infirmities as the heroes in the Mahabharata; they exposed the flaws in the global capitalist system. Duryodhana’s envy and greed that makes him want to annex the Pandavas’ kingdom is in tune with what big fishes do to smaller ones.

In other words, the narrative fleshes out through a tale of sibling rivalry the brutal competition of ‘interests and passions’ that is the characterestic of a ‘free market’.
Are lessons from the Mahabharata enough to save capitalism? Das, certainly, thinks that a healthy dose of Dharma may restore trust in the system. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that this epic, like all classics, enriches one’s concept of Man. The Mahabharata is seven times as long as The Iliad and The Odyssey combined but it has not been translated in as many languages. It has had no Fagles. Das’s book (even though it is not really a translation) will certainly make it accessible to a whole new generation.

N Chandra Mohan is an economic and business commentator

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