Why be good, asks Gurcharan Das

By Madhusree Chatterjee,IANS,

New Delhi : Columnist and writer Gurcharan Das, author of best-selling “India Unbound”, has turned to the epic Mahabharata in his new book, “The Difficulty of Being Good: The Subtle Art of Dharma”, to answer an oft-asked question in this age of uncertainty — “why be good?”

Support TwoCircles

“Every generation should go back to Mahabharata to find new meanings. The failure in governance and the daily corruption drove me to Mahabharata. I was also driven by the fact that there was a moral failure and fight between ‘dharma’ and ‘adharma’,” Das told IANS.

“Moral failure pervaded our public life and hung over it like Delhi’s smog. One out of every five members of parliament elected in 2004 had criminal charges. A survey by a Harvard professor found that one of out every four teachers in government primary schools is absent.

“A World Bank study found that one out of every five doctors does not show up at the primary health centres and 69 percent of medicines are stolen. A cycle-rickshaw driver in Kanpur pays one-fifth of his daily earnings to the police as bribe,” Das said.

His new book explores the weaknesses in the characters of the epic and the ethical problems faced by Bhishma, Yudhisthira, Arjuna, Draupadi, Duryodhana, Karna, Ashwatthama and Krishna and the significance of the issues in our lives.

“I took an academic break to write the book. It took me nearly seven years. I went to the University of Chicago to study the Mahabharata. I read almost all the versions of Mahabharata, as much as possible in Sanskrit and the English translations to get a feel of the text,” Das said. The writer was introduced to the epic by his grandmother at the age of four.

After spending six years with the epic during the academic break, Das said he found that Mahabharata was also about how “we deceived ourselves, how false we were to others and how we oppressed fellow human beings”.

The writer sees the contemporary realities of India reflected in the Mahabharata.

“I find the feud between the Ambani brothers — a story of corporate greed — similar to the rivalry between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, who were also brothers. B. Ramalinga Raju, the former chairman of Satyam, was like Dhritarashtra whose love for his son destroyed him. During my business career, I found that a number of middle class parents wanted their children to grow up as Arjuna and not like Yudhisthira — to be successful in life,” Das said.

Human beings, says Das, are all flawed.

“This human proclivity to paint people in black and white is all wrong. Reading Mahabharata is a humbling realisation because it teaches us not to judge people on the surface. There are no easy answers. The character of Duryodhana, for instance, in Mahabharata grows enormously,” Das said.

“At the gates of heaven, Yudhisthira asks Lord Indra whether stray dogs are allowed inside heaven. Yudhisthira had picked up a stray dog a few days ago. When Indra says no, he asks the ruler of heaven to make an exception. It makes you believe that good deeds are possible,” Das says, commenting on his favourite characters in the epic.

According to Das, Mahabharata also makes a statement on women’s empowerment. “The whole epic is full of feisty women. Draupadi stops the show and makes the men realise they are deceiving themselves. How could they gamble with a woman? She is the character I admire the most,” the writer said.

The book published by Penguin-Allen Lane is divided into 10 chapters. It ends with an essay on “The Difficulty of Being Good”.

Das, author of three books, is also a veteran columnist for several Indian newspapers, along with the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. A graduate of Harvard University, he was also the CEO of Procter & Gamble in India.