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The debate over what is good and what is evil is as old as humanity. An absolutist might say, “We are good and they are evil” while a relativist might point out that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. In a complex world, where nothing is black and white, it is hard to discern what is good or evil from the shades of grey that envelop every issue. It is precisely this grey area that Gurcharan Das tackles in The Difficulty of Being Good….
Das takes dives deep into the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic, to investigate this weighty topic of good and evil, and what emerges is a thoroughly enjoyable, well-informed, and researched account. The book’s subtitle, “On the Subtle Art of Dharma,” captures the intricacies and nuances in the Mahabharata that are often left out in comic book or television versions of the epic.
Das, a prolific writer, studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Harvard University and enjoyed an illustrious career in the corporate world. He took early retirement from his job as the CEO of Proctor & Gamble, India to pursue writing. In his 60s, the author decided to take an academic holiday spending a number of years at the University of Chicago researching and writing this book under the guidance of preeminent Indologists and Sanskrit scholars.
The book uses the term “dharma” to broadly outline a framework of evaluating what might be good or evil. The Mahabharata is deconstructed from this perspective, and the refrain of whether an action is dharma or not becomes a recurring theme of the book. At the same time, the very nature of dharma is also examined in the light of various events in the Mahabharata—Yudhishtra gambling away his kingdom, the attempted disrobing of Draupadi, or the war at Kurukshetra. The book is organized into chapters based on the character traits of its main actors. Hence chapter headings such as “Duryodhana’s envy,” “Arjuna’s Despair,” and “Krishna’s Guile” lead to an examination of the role of each character in the epic and the morality of their actions.
A reader who is already familiar with the Mahabharata’s themes, characters, and stories will be able to better enjoy the author’s perspectives, for though Das provides an overview in the beginning, and intersperses the chapters with details from the epic, the nuances of the author’s arguments are better understood with a much more detailed knowledge of the epic.
One chapter that might not be to the liking of the religious-minded, though, is the one that examines Krishna’s role in the epic, especially the questionable tactics that he persuades the Pandavas to espouse in order to win various battles. Das points out that Duryodhana himself, as he lies dying on the battlefield, questions Krishna’s advice to Bhima on how to vanquish Duryodhana—by breaking his thighs using Bhima’s mace. He also questions Krishna’s similar advice to Arjuna to kill Karna when he was fixing his chariot, or orchestrating the killing of Drona, the Pandavas’ teacher, by committing Yudhishtra to a lie.
Das’s analysis of Krishna’s role is a liberal secularist reading of the epic as a historical document, much like Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest for the Historical Jesus attempted to treat the life of Jesus in more of a historical than religious context. Krishna’s instruction to the Pandavas “Casting aside virtue, ye sons of Pandu, adopt now some contrivance for gaining the victory” captures the essence of his conviction which, in the words of the great football coach Vince Lombardi, is, “winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing.”
However, Das seems much too eager to drop frequent references to his Ivy League past and his corporate career, with a number of references to Western philosophers and extensive name-dropping. Moreover, the author’s attempts to compare the epic’s quandaries with Western religious thought and provide all-too-easy answers seem incongruous with his exegetical approach in the book. There is a continuing element of moral outrage against Indian politicians which not only becomes overbearing but rather defeats the central point of his analysis, which is that that there is complexity in every human endeavor, as exemplified in the Mahabharata, and that one should not rush to quick judgment.
The book encourages the reader to make their own investigation of theMahabharata in its entirety (100,000 verses) and Das provides an extensive bibliography and many sources from which to begin. It also provides excellent background material to begin contemplating contemporary moral problems, such as the legitimacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of torture as strategy, and what constitutes a just war.
In conclusion though, the book raises more questions than it answers. In a way that seems to be the author’s intent, for that too seems to be the point of theMahabharata, that there is no easy way to engage with the world and everything that inhabits it, and that even great heroes have doubts, they often despair, and are remorseful. There is good and evil in the world and sometimes one cannot tell which is which.
Girija Sankar lives in Atlanta and works in the area of International Development.