Martha Nussbaum, Philosopher

Martha Naussbaum is Enrnst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, Department of Philosophy, Law School, and Divinity School, at the University of Chicago. The Extract below is from The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 2007 and Permanent Black. 2007 (

The Disillusioned: Gurcharan Das

As I think of these choices, I picture my friend Gurcharan Das walking toward me on a cold Chicago day, a small, round man around five feet five, dressed in an expensive camel-hair coat and an elegant black felt hat Gurcharan exudes warmth and gentleness. He is also very funny. Invariably, Gurcharan has great curiosity about the other person.Gurcharan Das came to Chicago in 2002 to learn more about classical Indian thought from Wendy Doniger and other scholars at our university. He audited my class on Literature and Ethics in Ancient Greece and participated vigorously. The next year he came to talk to my graduate seminar on Religion and the State. Perhaps this history biases my account of him. I think, however, that the causation goes the other way: it was not an antecedent friendship that made me view his life differently from the other three lives; it was because of who he is, and the ways in which he differs from the others, that I wanted to form a friendship with him.

Although Gurcharan Das is wealthy, he is not one of the nouveaux riches, for whom conspicuous consumption, American Style, is a mark of success. His home, though elegant, is simple, and his collection of contemporary Indian paintings, though priceless, is that of a connoisseur who promotes the careers of indigenous artists. He dresses in fine but simple clothes, usually Indian style (with the exception of the hat and winter coat, for which he has no use in India). Dinner at his home is simple vegetarian food; his vegetarianism has ethical as well as habitual roots.

Gurcharan Das began life as a writer; he wrote a fine novel about Partition, based on his family's experience, and several plays on historical and social themes, which are still produced. He studied in the U. S. briefly in the 1950's, returning for an undergraduate degree at Harvard in philosophy and government, during which time he studied Sanskrit with the great scholar Daniel Ingalls and philosophy with the great John Rawls. Rawls, who was his tutor, was “perhaps the most important influence on my life.” Later in life, he received a degree from the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School. He soon discovered that he had a talent for business as well as for the arts, and he rose to be CEO of Procter and Gamble in India (1985-1992) and then Vice-President and Managing Director of Procter and Gamble Worldwide, responsible for strategic planning (1992-1995). In 1995 he took early retirement, becoming wealthy from venture capital, and, all the while, writing a regular column on political and cultural matters for The Times of India. His most famous book, India Unbound (2001) is a defense of a free-market approach to the Indian economy. Meanwhile, he has chosen to spend a lot of his time studying classical Hindu texts, literary and philosophical, because he believes that the practice of business in India can be greatly improved by thinking about Hindu notions of dharma (moral rectitude, or duty). He is writing a book about connections between the ethical ideas of the Mahabharata and contemporary failures in public and corporate governance, a topic on which he frequently lectures to businessmen, in the U. S. and in India.

In India Unbound, though sympathetic to the BJP for economic reasons, he chastised the party for its reliance on a politics of hatred. He describes himself as fed up with the economic errors of the Congress Party and drawn to the BJP for its promise of reform, and yet he clearly feels great unease, even in 2001, at the bad record of the party in religious matters. This theme has become increasingly salient in his columns. In 2002, after Gujarat, he became deeply disillusioned with the BJP.

Gurcharan grew up in northwest India, in an area that is now part of Pakistan; the whole region was a major site of religious violence at the time of Partition. He remembers that when he was only four, in 1946, his mother was alarmed by an incident between Hindus and Muslims in a local railway station. Soon afterward the family (very much like the family in his novel) was forced to leave its home behind, never to return. Did his mother and the rest of his family absorb a sense of bitterness toward Muslims because of Partition, I ask. “I think intuitively some of it must have been there, must be.” And the sheer fact of leaving home, only to find out later that one's home was in a different country, all that was very painful. In some ways, he says, many Indians “have not accepted that Pakistan is there. Somehow we locked our homes in the riots and said that we would go back, and my grandmother had all these forty-two keys “ I remember that she brought these keys with her and she locked everything and that we would go back there.”

Despite these traumas, however, he did not learn anti-Muslim ideas in his home. His family's religious practices were unconventional and austere, and his father eventually became attached to a guru, forcing the family to spend long stretches of time in an ashram. Only from relatives' homes did he learn about more traditional Hindu worship, with all the various gods. Meanwhile, he simply learned very little about Muslims. A few were in his school later on in Delhi, “but you know, when you're in school you talk about sports and you're busy playing cricket and hockey, and you do school work.” Never did he know Muslim classmates well enough to be invited to their homes.

In fact, he continues, the problem with the sort of education he received in the post-Independence era was that “One didn't learn very much about any religion, not even one's own. That's what I think is the real tragedy. Why did I after retiring from business want to go to the University of Chicago to read the Mahabharata with Wendy Doniger? Because I'd never been exposed to it, and I think that is a failing of our education system.” In general, the attitude of his friends, even today, is that someone who takes an interest in the Hindu tradition is bound to be motivated by sectarian Hindu-first motives. When he told an old friend that he had been reading classical Sanskrit texts, the response was, “Good God, man! You haven't turned Hindutva, have you?” And “a woman, in fact my mother's friend, said [if] she is going to the temple, she won't tell people because she is afraid they are going to pounce on her and think she has become some kind of communalist.” When religion is equated with extremism, it is easy for religious extremists to monopolize this important domain of human life.

How did this marginalization of religion begin? Nehru, he remembers, communicated the idea of equal respect, not the idea that we ought to leave religion behind. Because he was such a “charismatic,” figure, people picked up this idea of pluralism from him. Yet at the same time, in subtler ways, Nehru invited a narrower view of secularism, because he himself was so clearly agnostic. Meanwhile, the damage done by Partition surely reinforced the idea that people had better avoid speaking about religion if we are to have a peaceful nation. So religion became privatized as a way of not reopening old wounds. All the time that RSS was building a grassroots network, liberal pluralists were avoiding the entire issue. Some Congress politicians, inspired by Marxism, even adopted a “strident kind of secularism” that mocked all religion. “Had the Congress been smart, then they would have tried to create a gentler respect for each other's space.” In a column in 2003, he wrote, “Our secularism has failed to stem the tide of intolerance because most secularists do not value the religious life. In well-meaning efforts to limit religion to the private life they behave as though all religious people are superstitious and stupid.” It was not always that way. Earlier we had leaders like Gandhi, Maulana Azad, and Vivekenanda who could relate to “the vast majority of religiously minded Indians” and show them that “true religion is humanistic and has nothing to do with hating others.”

Gurcharan Das doesn't mince words about Gujarat. It was “murderous carnage,” and a great defeat for India's finest ideals. Referring to the ideas of the emperor Ashoka, who taught religious toleration in the third-century B.C.E, he wrote in 2003: “Here is a wonderful insight for our times: you damage your own religion when you malign another's Those who call for a Hindu nation not only harm the nation, they also damage Hinduism.” And then, commenting on parallels between U. S. and Indian history, he continued, “We don't want India to be like the old Massachusetts Bay Colony, which defined citizenship unequally and witch hunted minorities. Just as religious tolerance spread to the American colonies by the sheer need for the diverse people of America to live together, so must this happen in India. We want an India of Ashoka's vision where people of all beliefs live decently together.”

Gurcharan Das is (squarely within the Hindu tradition) a religious humanist, who still hopes for good to be done in religion's, and Hinduisms, name. This respect for the authentic traditions of Hinduism has prevented him from lining up with the BJP's politics of religious hatred For Gurcharan Das, religion is something noble that should not be debased by being linked with murder, and Hinduism stands for pluralism and toleration, not for violence. Gurcharan Das is a man not of fear, but of hope. He always has a new constructive plan to bring better lives to people: the Swatantra party, the lectures on morality in business, the new plan to reform public education. Maybe it all comes down to hope. For Gurcharan Das, belief in the possibility of human goodness and hope for that goodness make it impossible to demonize an entire people or group. Each is a separate human life, and we must wait for evidence of guilt before condemning Behind hope, in turn, lies the work of the imagination. Gurcharan Das's ability to connect so affectionately with people is related to his intuitive sense of each person's inner world, his quick ability to endow another form with life and spirit, skills that he developed through his long engagement with the arts, and that probably had deeper roots in the childhood that he remembers with such vividness Gurcharan Das blames some of the current politics of religious violence on the fact that Indians currently study little about their own religious traditions and that liberal pluralists, despising religion, have tried to marginalize it. That the ideology of hatred and violence has been widely accepted as an authentic form of Hinduism is an astonishing fact, given Gandhi's role in the founding of the country. Wider awareness of Hindu traditions of pluralism and respect would surely make it more difficult for young people to identify the politics of the Hindu right with genuine religion, as many clearly do. The problem engendering violence is not, then, Hinduism itself “ if one can speak of an “itself' in a religion so multifaceted. Nor is it any threat posed by Indian Muslims (the special case of Kashmir always excepted). The “clash” we are beginning to see, then, is not the mythic clash between a Western democratic vision and a violent Muslim vision. It appears to be a clash between two different sorts of democratic citizens, employing different versions of the Hindu tradition. There are Indians, and Gurcharan Das is one of them, who do not fear difference, who seek peaceful relations with people from other religions and ways of life, and who see democratic institutions as strong enough to provide the groundwork for a future of mutual respect. There are also Indians, who fear religious and ethnic differences as a deep threat to order and safety, who have learned to hate people who insist on living in a way that sets them off from the majority, and whose anxious desire for control leads them to legitimize violence. These two types of democratic citizens can be found in many if not most modern nations. At a deeper level in the quality of imagination that governs their relationships with strangers [the latter] have little ability to imagine the life of people who differ from themselves, to see an inner world in a stranger. They see members of other groups primarily as looming threats to their own safety and preeminence. Somehow life in a pluralistic democracy, and the education they received in that democracy, failed to cultivate their imaginative capacities and their capacities for sympathy. Gurcharan Das has a curiosity and flexibility of mind “ whether through his connection to the arts or through some deeper processes in his childhood. The second “clash” we are beginning to see, then, is a clash inside the person, between the forces of fear and reactive domination and the forces that lead to compassion and respect “ a “clash” that must be mediated through effective education and a decent public culture. As Gandhi knew, democracy must learn how to cultivate the inner world of human beings, equipping each citizen to contend against the passion for domination and to accept the reality, and the equality, of others.

- Martha Nussbaum, Philosopher

How can we live with moral balance in an arbitrary and uncertain world? In this wise, passionate, and illuminating book, Gurcharan Das turns to the classical Indian epic Mahabharata for answers -- and finds, instead, a life of questioning, an ethical temper tolerant and suspicious of ideology, in which certainty is no virtue and respect for the projects of others is the appropriate response to life's complexities. Dedicated to his teachers Sanskritist Daniel Ingalls and philosopher John Rawls, Gurcharan Das's book is a fitting tribute to Ingalls's scholarly integrity and Rawls's insights about pluralism and respect. It is also one of the best things I've read about the contribution of great literature to ethical thought.'

- Martha Naussbaum on The Difficulty of Being Good