Saturday, 12 December 2009



“Envy and jealousy are different”, says author Gurcharan Das as he cites the mindset of the Duryodhana of the epic Mahabharata. “He was envious of the Pandavas, just as Hitler was envious of Jews most of whom were successful professionals. One can excuse if a man is jealous that his wife is having an affair with another man. But Duryodhana was intolerant about the successes of his cousins,” the author of The Difficulty of Being Good---On the Subtle Art of Dharma says. “And that's not justifiable at all”. Das was in the town recently to launch the bestselling book.

The Difficulty of Being Good looks at the great epic Mahabharata from a modern perspective. I ask the author about his choice of the epic. “After I wrote India Unbound, in which I had prescribed ways to prosperity, I was depressed to see corruption all around us, especially in the government set-up. So I felt the need to look in the epic to understand dharma. The Mahabharata is obsessed with dharma. It doesn't look up to god to know dharma. The characters are left to their own devices to find out about the moral reasoning of what is right and what isn't,” he explains. “The epic gives us an idea about the universal and the societal natures of dharma. You could say, this book is about how we live our lives”.

The concept of dharma in usual parlance means 'religion'. But in the book the author has explored into the evolution of the concept --- how it changed from being the rituals to the virtues. “In my book I have looked at dharma as both civic and personal virtues. While for Yudhisthira the dharma meant not violating his promise, for Draupadi and later for Krishna it meant performing one's role --- that of a warrior,” Das says. “Yudhisthira was initially hesitant since he didn't want to offend his dharma, but later he accepted the need for violence”.

Discussing the flaws in some of the characters in the epic, Das mentions Draupadi “rightly questioning Yudhisthira's decision to stake the lady”, who was also wife of other Pandava brothers. “Moreover, I deal with the issue of failure to perform one's duty. When the epic demands that Dhritarashtra should thrash Dushasana for molesting Draupadi, the old man sits back”. Das then refers to Rishi Kashyap who prescribed how a punishment should be apportioned between the real offender, the accomplice and those who remain silent.

In the book, along with the central story of the Mahabharata, Das seeks answers to the questions that stare at the reader. “So while telling the epic, I stop and deal with the question of 'moral emotions' --- about Karna's status anxiety, the humiliation he suffers at Draupadi's swyamvara, or that behind Ashwathama's revenge,” he says. “The study of Karna shows that we all want to be 'somebody' but not 'nobody'. And the story is still continuing in present India when the Dalits are made to feel that they are 'nobody',” Das adds.

In order to understand issues such as these, and the entire epic, from a more cosmopolitan view point, Das studied the Mahabharata for a year at the University of Chicago. “It was a wonderful academic break for me when I met and exchanged ideas with the great scholars there,” he says in this regard.

His study in the USA as well as in India revealed some interesting facts about the epic's history. “What was first called Jaya, then Bharata before becoming the Mahabharata, got influenced by several sects through the ages --- be it the Vaishnavites or the Brahmins. “But I don't think that any part of the text, as we find now, was unduly inserted. It was always a pleasure to read the epic,” the scholar affirms.

In the book there are references to the corporate battle between the Ambani brothers or the bad corporate governance of the Satyam. I ask Das to elaborate. “The Ambanis and other names are just examples to make the book more accessible in a way to the readers,” he says. “The younger Ambani envies the older one. Initially it helped the younger one to build his own enterprises. But gradually it has become destructive. I feel, Anil Ambani just wants to bring down Mukesh Ambani --- just as it was in the case of the Kauravas in the Mahabharata,” the authors explains. “Raju of the Satyam scam was like Dhritarashtra. He loved his son and that destroyed him”. In this regard Das mentions how he also drew parallels between the characters in the epic with some important political players in today's India.

It leads me to ask about how credible is the corporate governance in India. Can unscrupulous businessmen survive? “No way. Shady people can't keep doing business. The fundamental dharma of capitalism lies in quality. We all seek best quality in lowest price. If the seller gives you bad stuff, will you go back to him again? “ Das poses a question. “So, the corporate world must ensure that they stick to the dharma of not cheating others and treating the employees well,” the former managing director of Proctor and Gamble tells me. “The Mahabharata is a dark tale. It tells us what happens if we do not remain good. It tells us the amount of reforms we need in our lives, in the functioning of the state and politics”.