The Difficulty of Being Good

The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma, by Gurcharan Das, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 488 pages

The Mahabharata, which describes itself as “the poetical history of mankind”, is the story of the rivalry of two sets of princely cousins whose enmity culminates in an Armageddon-like war on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Embedded at its heart lies The Bhagavad Gita, for many, Hinduism’s most profound, philosophical and holy text; a dialogue, on the eve of battle, between the god Krishna and Arjun, one of the princely heroes, about duty, illusion and reality.

In the west, the text is known largely through the spectacular nine-hour Peter Brook stage production, written by Buñuel’s great screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, which was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece in the late 1980s. But in India, two and a half thousand years after it was composed, The Mahabharata’s sprawling epic is not some dead literary text like The Iliad or The Odyssey – but still the common property not just of Indian literati or pious Hindus but all Indians. When the epic was televised in 93 episodes on Doordashan, the state-run Indian TV, in the early 1990s, viewing figures at one point rose to 95 per cent, an audience of some 600m.

The Mahabharatastill speaks to rural peasants and is still being transmitted by wandering, illiterate bards in remote Indian villages. Yet its deeply sophisticated philosophical interludes also represent some of the most profound thinking on morals, ethics and duty ever written, and are among the deepest expressions of Hindu thought. Indeed it is the contention of Gurcharan Das, the celebrated Indian writer on economics and enthusiastic amateur Sanskritist, that its teachings represent just as valuable a guide on how to live a moral and ethical life in the world today as it did in the early centuries BC when it was first written, tackling the eternal questions of Everyman: “Who am I?” “What should I do?” “What is right?”

After taking early retirement from a career as the chief executive of Proctor & Gamble India, Gurcharan Das went to Chicago to study Sanskrit under the two great American scholars of the “language of the gods”, Sheldon Pollock and Wendy Doniger, and The Difficulty of Being Good represents an attempt by Das to bring together the two sides of his life, the literary and the practical. The result is a highly personal and idiosyncratic, yet richly insightful meditation on the application of ancient philosophy to issues of modern moral conduct and right and wrong. Das is especially focused on his native India, which today is mired in corruption, with one out of every five members of parliament having had criminal charges levelled against him: “Moral failure pervades our public life and hangs over it like Delhi’s smog.”

At the centre of the book is Das’s quest to understand the elusive term dharma, a word which means at once duty and religion, justice and righteousness, law and goodness. Dharma lies at the heart of the ethical questions explored in The Mahabharata, and as Das puts it: “The conceptual difficulty is part of the point. Indeed The Mahabharata is in many ways an extended attempt to clarify what dharma is – that is, what exactly should we do, when we are trying to be good in the world.”

Both the strength and weakness of The Difficulty of Being Good lies in the sheer complexity of looking for clear moral teachings in the profoundly ambiguous teachings of an epic that is “about our incomplete lives, about good people acting badly, about how difficult it is to be good in this world”. It is true that the Pandavas’ gentle leader, King Yudhishthira, is admired for his unbreakable commitment to satya (truth), ahimsa (non-violence) and anrishamsya (compassion).

Yet much of the richness of The Mahabharata lies exactly in its Shakespearian refusal to give clear answers or to deal out simplistic rights and wrongs. Characters are constantly faced with competing claims on their sense of duty. The “heroes” of the epic, the five Pandava brothers, are profoundly flawed and fallible: Yudhishthira loses all his kingdoms and even his wife through his feckless addiction to gambling; and the Man-God Krishna, who guides the brothers in the war, brings them to victory through teaching them trickery, deception and the art of guile. Meanwhile the “villains”, the many Kaurava brothers, intermittently display great virtues: bravery, perseverance, generosity and loyalty.

There are, in short, few moral or spiritual certainties advanced in The Mahabharata that are not later profoundly modified and questioned. Most importantly, during the philosophical climax of the epic, The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna persuades the Pandava hero Arjun that it is his duty to wage war on his cousins, arguing that the world is an illusion, and all that one can do is to act with the right motives, according to your dharma. Yet Arjun’s profound doubts about waging war on this basis are amply borne out by the results of Krishna’s advice: the almost complete destruction of the world and a genocide of 18m that leaves the Kauravas extinct and the Pandavas drifting childless and joyless through a charred landscape of death.

Trying to elicit clear moral guidance for modern politicians, civil servants and businessmen from such a spectacularly complex and ambiguous text, and one that is itself so very full of self-questioning, is a very difficult task, and the result is only a mixed success in terms of Sanskrit self-help. Yet Das’s deeply informed and learned musings on The Mahabharata and its moral dilemmas are invariably so penetrating and full of insight, and the questions he raises so important, that it barely matters. Above all, he draws us back to the text of The Mahabharata itself, one of the greatest of man’s literary achievements and one that, astonishingly, has yet to be translated into English in its entirety: a measure of the degree to which the west still continues to ignore the riches of ancient Indian classical culture.

Thanks to Das, however, I am now deep in the nearest thing we have to a complete English Mahabharata: the nine extant volumes so far translated by the Clay Sanskrit Library, a remarkable American project that aims to give access to the neglected riches of the Sanskrit classics, most of which, shockingly, still remain untranslated into any language. The project is the brainchild of Das’s old Chicago teacher Sheldon Pollock, and there is something appropriately and satisfyingly Indian in the work of the pupil leading readers back to the study of his guru.

William Dalrymple’s ‘Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India’ (Bloomsbury) has been awarded the first Asia House prize for literature

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