Reader’s Digest, India, July 2010, by Ashok Mahadevan

Right Here Right Now BOOK: MUST READThe Difficulty of Being Good:On the Subtle Art of DharmaBy Gurcharan Das (Allen Lane, an imprint ofPenguin Books) Rs699.Gurcharan Das was amarketing man who spent30 years working formultinational companiesand who, after taking earlyretirement, brought out abestseller on India'seconomic boom. But in2002, Das, who'd readphilosophy and Sanskrit asan undergraduate atHarvard and who comesfrom a religious family,decided to study theMahabharata. He wasalmost 60, the age at whichone often becomes moreconcerned with the meaningof life. Moreover, while Indiawas getting more prosperous,its public and privateethics certainly didn't seemto be improving. Could theMahabharata provide someanswers?The Difficulty of BeingGood is organized aroundthe stories of eight keycharacters of the Mahabharata—Duryodhana,Draupadi, Karna, Yudhishthira,Arjuna, Bhishma,Krishna, and Ashwatthama.Each of these characters, asDas says, "embodies astriking virtue or afailing—and [their]…story isan attempt to clarify thismoral idea, whosesignificance goes…to thevery heart of dharma." ThusDuryodhana's failing is envy,Draupadi's virtue is courage,Karna's failing is statusanxiety, Bhishma's virtue isselflessness, and so on. Daspoints out that among themany points the Mahabharatamakes is that evenvirtues can be destructive ifnot tempered by pragmatism.For example, it wasBhishma's celibacy—aconsequence of his extremeselflessness—thatultimately led to the battleover succession and thenear-total annihilation of hisdescendants.Das buttresses hisanalysis of the Mahabharatawith anecdotes from hisown life and from that ofcontemporary India, anddiscusses everyone from hisparents to Anil Ambani andManmohan Singh. He alsoquotes a large number of(mostly) Western experts,from moral philosophersto evolutionary psychologists.Indeed, I found hisbibliographic essay onall the books he'd read forthe project one of the mostuseful things in the book.What about the book'smessage? How are we tolive? Like all great texts, theepic is too complex—andeven too contradictory—tobe boiled down to a few"how to" bullet points. Atthe end even the Pandavasare left looking for dharmain a cave. Even so, Das sumsup the general tenor of thebooks as one of reciprocalaltruism—"adopt a friendlyface to the world but do notallow yourself to beexploited." For those with ataste for intellectual fare,it's an enjoyable—anduseful—read.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.