INTERVIEW Gurcharan Das talks to Gowri Ramnarayan about his latest release The Difficulty of Being Good, which draws a parallel between The Mahabharata and the modern world. In a world of fundamentalism, we are left to our own devices to deal with moral dilemmas.
"You can learn more about dharma from Tolstoy and Jane Austen than from philosophy," says Gurcharan Das, retired CEO of Procter & Gamble India-turned-fulltime-writer and newspaper columnist.
In Chennai recently to release his new book The Difficulty of Being Good, Das talked about his "academic holiday" studying The Mahabharata in Chicago to find practical guidelines for dealing with the moral dilemmas of present-day existence.
Drawing sidelights from diverse strains of Western thought, Das frames Bhishma, Duryodhana, Yudhishtira, Arjuna, Karna, Ashwatthama, Krishna and Draupadi for up-close scrutiny, unravelling the tangled strands of ethical import in their actions and motivations. He makes the ancient epic throb to the pulse of the modern world - relating the power struggle between Mukesh and Anil Ambani to Duryodhana's envy, or Ramalinga Raju's Sathyam scam to Dhritarashtra's blind partiality for his sons. But, what makes the book immensely readable is the fact that Das blends the intimacy of the rasika with the reflexivity of the rational analyst. Excerpts from an interview.
What made you explore the ancient world of The Mahabharata after chronicling the transition of India into a free market economy in India Unbound and The Elephant Paradigm?
After India Unbound I was engulfed by depression. I knew the economy grew at night when the Government slept. Prosperity would be achieved under any regime. However, in the surge of entrepreneurial energy, every transaction with the State remains morally ambiguous. We need judicial, police and administrative, rather than economic reforms. Punish one absentee teacher from a Government school, and others will turn up. Happiness needs reforms in governance. The Mahabharata is obsessed with dharma. Could I capture the ideal of civic virtue from it, hold a mirror up to the corrupt bureaucrat, politician, policeman?
Doesn't The Mahabharata leave us in darkness?
Yes, The Ramayana had to be written to give people some hope. But Yudhishtira refuses to go to heaven without the dog that accompanied him on his final journey. Take the two birds on the tree - one participates in every emotion, the other simply watches what happens. We learn dharma from such poetic moments.
Bhishma had that double consciousness, his actions were performed with cold detachment. He quibbled about dharma when Draupadi was about to be stripped in public.
The man who stays silent when a crime is perpetrated shares the blame, says sage Kasyapa. Bhishma remained silent when atrocities were committed, or argued like a lawyer in the patriarchal system of the times. It is difficult to be good, for, as Bhishma himself says, dharma is sukshma, subtle.
After seven years with the epic, do you feel you are a better human being?
I'd say my moral reasoning skills are sharpened. Nobody says in The Mahabharata, "Let's ask God", the Vedas. You're on your own, free to reason and decide. There is sophisticated analysis too. Yudhishtira says ends cannot justify the means, while Vidura says you can sacrifice a person for a village, a village for the nation. I think white lies are the foundation of civilisation.
How can you justify adharma, by saying God takes responsibility for it as Krishna declares? Accept the "good" side indulging in immorality, prompted by a God?
Krishna admits he had to lighten the load of the world by destroying aggressive warriors, level the playing fields.
That is what terrorists say.
What if the Kauravas had won? If Hitler had won? Our whole mental universe would have been destroyed. Krishna's guile is strategy, supporting the preferred side.
If The Mahabharata teaches us to accept a flawed universe, where's the light?
Imagine if while discussing the consequences of the Iraq War, George Bush had said: 'But we are going to kill human beings!' like Arjuna did. In India, religion leaves us mental space. My grandmother went to her Gods in the puja room, temples, havans, gurdwaras, Sufi peers, while believing in one God. A chaotic tolerance exists here, a metaphor for India, our democracy. In a world of fundamentalism, we are left to our own devices to deal with moral dilemmas. Unlike the West, where priests have hijacked sexual morality, The Mahabharata doesn't talk about sexual sin, guilt or shame. But, it does say we control a part of our lives and reminds us about human responsibility.
What satisfied you most in the writing?
I've let the text speak for itself. This is not a how-to book. I think it will force us to realise we must put moral dharma on the agenda, for the individual as well as the State. All writers have the duty to explain dharma. We must take a stand.