Indian Express, Sept 12, 2010 by Lord Meghnad Desai

The winner takes it all

Indian Express

Meghnad Desai Posted online: Saturday , Sep 12, 2009 at 0008 hrs

The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma

Gurcharan Das

Allen Lane

Pages: 434

Rs 699

Gurcharan Das is a multi-talented man. He has been a successful business leader, an author of plays and novels and the book India Unbound, which told the world that India had arrived. Now he has taken on the difficult task of reading the Mahabharata and interpreting its many messages in light of contemporary circumstances.

Unlike many people in their dotage, who turn to religion and spout untutored nonsense, Das took his task seriously. He took out a year of his life and went to the University of Chicago to study the Mahabharata critically. It is a dying shame of the Indian university system that even to study a Sanskrit classic, there is no institution with the library facilities or the Sanskrit expertise that Chicago has.

The result is a book rich in ideas. Das does not retell the story as has often been done. He takes episodes and characters who pose moral and ethical questions. Why is Duryodhana so envious, how could every male of the Kuru clan sit passively as Draupadi, in her menstrual state and wearing but a single garment, was physically assaulted, indeed all but publicly raped by Dushasana, why was Yudhishthira so meek and why did he later agree to a war of genocidal proportions? Arjun’s hesitation is well known but there is also Bhishma’s self-abnegation, Karna’s resentment at the injustice meted out to him because he is just an OBC and then there is Krishna’s willingness to play dirty to win, Ashwatthama’s heinous killing of the five Pandava children etc.

Das obviously had a roaring time at Chicago reading all sorts of books and talking to some of the best Sanskritists there are. He has given us a cosmopolitan study of a quintessentially Indian text. The central question concerns dharma and its changing meanings as attributed by the characters in the epic and the way we would think of dharma today. In the Vedas, dharma applies only to Brahmins and concerns yajna. Later in the Gita, it is the cosmic order which Krishna must uphold. Then in 19th century, it is another name for religion and later for norms of ethical conduct.

The best chapter in my view is the one that concerns Draupadi. Das has read the Bhandarkar Institute’s Critical Edition carefully and tells us that Krishna’s rescue of Draupadi is not in the original (as the famous Lakshman Rekha episode is not in the Valmiki Ramayan either). But that apart, Draupadi raises the question whether Yudhishthira had the right to stake her in a gamble when he had already staked and lost himself and his brothers. Whose property was she if Yudhishthira was not his own master? It is a question which hangs over the assembled men (all women being kept away in purdah?) but few can give the answer. The epic itself resolves the rape scene (for that is what it is) by mentioning the miracle of many layers of garments. But the burning question of dharma and even of property rights remain.

Yet (since a reviewer must quibble) Das does not pursue the question of how much of the Mahabharata is a padding upon the original core Jaya and even the Bharata, which then became the Mahabharata. My own unscholarly hunch is that Jaya was a simple tale of the battle which raged over eighteen days in which Pandavas won. It was not clear that they deserved to win. But then as victors they invented the grievances which justified the dirty tricks employed with Krishna’s help. The gambling match and Yudhishthira’s behaviour defy belief unless he and his brothers were drugged as well. It is probably a later interpolation.

The Draupadi episode is in my view the central invention of these later versions. It is so heinous an insult, that even in a patriarchal society, it gives the Pandavas a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card to disregard all moral scruples and defeat the Kauravas. Dharma is suspended because of this one grievance. But that is my personal view.

At one stage, Das gives the example of the Ambani brothers to illustrate how such quarrels can get lethal. He pits Mukesh as Yudhishthira against Anil as Duryodhana. But surely we do not know yet. We need to wait till the end to see who wins. The winner will be Yudhishthira by definition and the loser will be Duryodhana. It is too early to say who will be which. Then will the epic saga be written to reflect the winner’s morality as the true one. But ignore all such quibbles. Buy the book and read it.

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