The Book Review by Arshia Sattar

The difficulty of being good is as wonderful title for a book as it is a philosophical statement that provides the parameter for a life-time's quest. The declaration, for it is such, boldly encapsulates the problem that has compelled humankind for centuries. For me, it circumscribes the central problem of being, it is the very definition of the human condition. I imagine that animals have no moral centre from within which they act, that ethics and morality are the unique purview of human beings, that it is the capacity to choose to be good that makes us different from other sentient beings. At least on this planet. As we know it. Cultures and peoples define the idea of good differently, perhaps. But it would seem that we all have an idea of the good, the true, the beautiful. And we also have an idea of how to locate these values for ourselves and how to recognise the same aspiration in others. Sometimes, it's our philosophers who teach us how to discriminate, how to discern, how to ponder. But very often (and much more accessibly), it is our story tellers who engage with these questions, spinning layered tales that consider the idea of the good in all its complexity.


Hindus (secular, liberal and otherwise) have always believed that it is the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (rather than the Vedas or the Upanisads), that actually explore and comment on what it means to be good. By extension, these texts explore what it means to be human and that too, in the presence of a god who has become human precisely to examine the limits of goodness. We tend to think of the Ramayana as the story where what is good is clear and manifest and do-able, whereas the Mahabharata is the story where even the idea of what is good is murky. In the Mahabharata's own words, dharma is suksma – ever so subtle, slippery, delicate, elusive. Following the text's own stated impulse, i.e., to try and discover what is good and excavate how it might be deemed as such, Gurcharan Das picks the Mahabharata to illuminate the idea of goodness for our times. In doing so, he displays more than a passing acquaintance with the other great texts and minds of the world, a genuine interest in the bedrock of ethical action and an utterly disarming literary conceit of personal vulnerability. This book is sure to find followers among businessmen, corporate professionals and maybe even political leaders, all of whom seek to find a code of ethics that justifies their actions and who would be delighted to find an indigenous paradigm that allows for a contextual good rather than a categorical imperative.


Das is well educated, well-read and well traveled in the fullest sense of these terms. One cannot fault him for not knowing enough about what is distant or for not having sufficient access to what is familiar. His teachers and his peers (those that have introduced him to the metaphysical systems of the west and those who have helped him wade through the same quagmire of thought and expression in eastern texts) all have impeccable academic and intellectual pedigrees. Moreover, his own quest appears genuine, to say the very least. Here is a man in the shadowed afternoon of a life well-lived, now in the classically defined stage of vanaprastha, a stage of quiet of self reflection when one looks back on what one has done and achieved and wonders about what lies ahead, what might happen next. For all of these reasons, Das is a thoughtful and compassionate guide through the territory that he defines and treads. He wields a confident machete that cuts through the tangles of ancient brush and the over-grown and self-congratulatory contemporary elephant grasses that cover the path towards clear-eyed ethical action.

Like all good commentators and exegetes, Das uses stories from the ancient text as parables to understand the world we live in and the people that we are surrounded by. The project he undertakes is as much about mining the past for wisdom as it is about parsing the present such that we can make sense of it. He uses the characters and the situations of the Mahabharata as a grammar through which we might tease meaning out of recent public scandals that ask the question, was this the right thing to do or, how could he have done this? He takes as examples the Satyam fiasco and the unseemly and very public fraternal fight between the Ambanis. Das understands Duryodhana's person and actions as emerging from a fundamental and overwhelming envy – envy for anyone that has more, be it wealth, respect, love or horses. He analyses the Ambani brothers' dispute as being fueled by this same primal emotion in the younger Anil towards the older and more highly regarded Mukesh – you have what I want or, in this case, you have more of what I have. Das also takes the opportunity to ponder what envy means in various cultures and at various times in history – could it ever be a positive aspect of a person, spurring them on to greater heights of achievement and accomplishment? Or is it always and forever a ruinous canker in the human heart?

Of greater interest and more nuanced, however, is Das's perambulation through what might have motivated a basically 'good' man, Satyam's Ramalinga Raju, to act 'badly.' Das suggests that like Dhritarashtra, Raju's transgressions of a financial and moral code arose from a natural paternalistic desire to secure his family's future. Is it wrong to want the best for your children? When does that private instinct to protect one's own go too far and become a public menace?

One of the most difficult characters in the Mahabharata to deal with is Ashwatthama, who avenges the deaths of his father Drona and his commander Duryodhana (both killed by unfair means) by unleashing a ghastly massacre on the surviving Pandavas, killing all their sons and grandsons while they were asleep. Ashwatthama is then cursed by Krishna to live forever as a suppurating mass of flesh, oozing pus and gore, writhing in pain for all eternity, shunned as a beast by his fellow men and women. What do we do with ideas of revenge, of crime and punishment and retributive justice? Das leads us by the hand to think about how corrosive the desire for revenge might be – he talks about Nietzsche and Foucault who warn that the desire to harm others lies deep within us. He quotes John Rawls' (one of his teachers) idea of modern society's 'pure, procedural justice' and then takes us further into the realm of forgiveness, citing South Africa's remarkable Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He candidly reminds us also of his own less shining moment when he suggested that Narendra Modi, the victorious Chief Minister and architect of the post-Godhra carnage in Gujarat facilitate 'forgiveness' as a way to get past the bad blood of the pogroms. Here, I think Das is naïve, for the 'forgiveness' of a victor is different from that of a victim. TRC worked in South Africa because of the moral high ground commanded by Mandela and Tutu – which is why it remains unique rather than replicable.

The Mahabharata  can be read for many intents and purposes, as can Das's book. It is likely that every intent and purpose will find an answer in the great epic and that it will do so here as well. But for all of the parables and allusions and metaphors and allegories and the personal anecdotes in The Difficulty of Being Good, Das has the courage to seek a moral centre within the great text that is human rather than divine. Like many older commentators (and I mean this very respectfully) on the Mahabharata, he finds his hero in Yudhisthira, the man who inherits the scorched and despairing earth after the war. I have found in classes with younger people that for them, the hero of the story is the supremely single-minded and successful warrior Arjuna or sometimes Karna, blighted by destiny but true and proud to the bitter end. I notice for that Peter Brook too, as for Gurcharan Das, the moral impulse of the family saga as well as of the larger narrative rests on the shoulders of the gentle, philosophical seeker, Yudhisthira, a reluctant warrior who ends up a disheartened king. It is Yudhisthira who keeps the bloodier and more violent instincts of his family under control and, towards the end of the war that he had done his best to avoid, he too, succumbs to the efficacy of deceit, if only to the end the slaughter of millions of soldiers. How heavy must his burden be! For his was the quieter, lonelier pursuit of the good and the right – without a blazing Krishna to show him a way out of his anguish at having to betray and to kill and then to live with that loss of self.

For all that Yudhisthiras has been seen by many as waffling, as indecisive, as weak, as a man who gambled away his own wife, Das concludes that it is Yudhisthira who inspires precisely because he does not know what dharma is and is determined to find it for himself at all costs. Yudhisthira's moment of truth comes at the very end of the story, as does ours, when he refuses to enter heaven without the dog that has followed him all the way up the mountain.  The dog turns out to be dharma, his father, as well as the abstract principle that he has sought all his life, the principle that will ground his actions as well as his being in the good and the right. It is at the last moment on earth that Yudhisthira's insistence on principled action is rewarded – he is the only one who sees heaven and hell for what they are, he gains the understanding that pleasure and pain are transitory and that what is eternal for all humans is that existential moment: to choose to be good. Yudhisthira has understood what it means to be human.

Arshia Sattar

17 Dec, 2009

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