Updated: December 6, 2009 16:00 IST

Search for an ethics

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An exercise that seeks to apply lessons from an epic to everyday problems of corporate and contemporary life…

A modern management executive is comparable to a mandarin. He administers, governs, but seeks to do so within a framework of culture and value. Gurcharan Das is self-consciously mandarin. He seeks to read the Mahabharata as an act of self-cultivation, asking how one applies its values and codes to a modern world. Realising all the perils of such an exercise, and conscious that as a Hindu executive, he might be suffering “Third stage melancholy”, Das begins an exercise in reading and re-reading. He begins a powerful form of initiation, especially with scholars like Sheldon Pollock and Paul Friedrich to help him. If a man is known by the scholars he enjoys and the bibliographies he keeps, Das is in wonderful company.

Let me say at the outset that what moved me was this confession. I feel that Indians often retire too early, shrink bodily as they shrink in power. Here, on the other hand, is an active person thinking about ethics, life, politics, sensitive to globalisation and concerned about corruption. He begins a voyage of self-cultivation and self-discovery by deciding to read, explore the universe of an epic narrative. He asks whether it makes sense of the problems and everyday contestations like Satyam, the battle of the Ambanis, the everyday requirements of executive ethics.

One feels a fondness for the enterprise, a sympathy for the man and the candidness with which he approaches it. One feels even more impressed that scholars like Sheldon Pollock, Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, Andre Beteille testify to the success of the enterprise, dubbing it “knowledgeable”, “passionate”, “courageous”, in short “a delight”.

Four hundred pages later, one sometimes wonders if one read it differently, sensing that these testimonials must have followed the rules of a different dharma. While the autobiography as an effort is impressive, the commentary as achievement is a trifle disappointing, sometimes irritatingly repetitive. The reviewer is caught between liking the man, his questions, his cosmopolitanism, his verve and quarrelling with his text which is a bit of a let-down.

False ideal?

First, visualise the exercise as a performance. Das has written a successful book on globalisation but is restless. He is an executive who went to school in India and yet confesses to have never read the classics of his own country. In fact, he shows the hypocrisy and waste, the sheer emptiness of a false ideal of secularism that tacitly disallows the teaching of Mahabharata because it is a religious book. To classify it that way is illiteracy because the Mahabharata is more than a religious epic. In fact, one of his efforts is to show its contemporary relevance, not by imposing an equivalent stencil of the Mahabharata on contemporary struggles in corporate life but by trying to examine whether the categories of understanding the text provides adds to our sense of the battle to be good today.

He tackles three questions. Firstly, does Mahabharata provide a framework of meaning to his life? Secondly, as an ethics, not only of epics but of everydayness, does it let you read contemporary life, particularly civics, politics and corporate governance? Thirdly, what does it say about “the difficulty of being good.”? He attempts to answer this by creating a jugalbandi between Mahabharata as an epic and the outstanding works of western philosophy, particularly Rawls, Nagel, Nussbaum and Michael Walzer. Playing middle-man between these two flows of thought are the works of outstanding Indologists like Pilikian, Ramanujan, Pollock, Shulman, O'Flaherty, Stoler Miller and Alf Hiltebeitel. As an exercise in reading, it is a formidable effort, as an exercise in reflection and application it falls short. Let me explore two smaller errors here.

Doesn't work

I am going to casll the first, the sin of the mandarin, the urge to show off one's cosmopolitanism. He cites equivalent Greek works but Achilles, or Hector, or studies of Antigone do not add to insight. To call Arjuna an Achilles may in fact be confusing. Beyond shades of the divine, there is little in common about choices, or the logic and rhetoric of behaviour. Das is better when he compares the attitudes to violence in both epics. His study of Draupadi is more problematic. Her rage and anger at humiliation is a turning point. But turning her statements into that of any CEO is a bit far-fetched. The leaps neither elucidate nor clarify.

Another difficulty one faces as a reader is the examples Das applies his interpretation to. His understanding of Satyam's Raju is limp, his descriptions of the Ambani battle are laughable. To reduce the struggle to Anil's envy might be a trifle simple. The case studies he selects do not have the same scale and poignancy. They lack an epic quality. Here Das might have benefited from listening to the discourses of Chinmayananda or Murari Bapu, who mingle these worlds and create more appropriate fables for our times. Das misses an infinite repertoire of possibilities here.

But the meat of the book, if one may pardon the metaphor, is the effort to understand Dharma. Dharmais a slippery and liminal concept: it evokes more than a religion. Articulated as a particularity, as a code of a caste or its calling, it went on to an epidemic of usages appropriated by Buddhists, Jains and Missionaries. Yet its very ambiguity creates the power and creativity of ethical discourse.

Das seeks a sense of Dharmathrough his readings, seeking to go beyond the classic expositions of Matilal and Karve. He wants a world between the ethical amber of the ideal and the ruthless pragmatism of power as real. He is at his best while writing on Yudhisthira, the unlikely hero of Mahabharatawho lacks the charisma of Arjun and Karna, or the divinity of Krishna. It is the ethical journey of Yudhisthira that holds the book. Yet somehow the renderings lack the power and passion of Matilal and Karve or Buddhadev Bose. The book falls between the intimacy of a diary a la Montaigne and a philosophical meditation, signifying a draughtman's measurements rather than an artist's ease.

In fact, if one weaves together Das, Nilekani, Narayan Murti, Varun Maira, Kalam, one watches a struggle to create an ethics of governance. This is a trend one must understand; an event where scientists become political theorists and managers write about ethics. These reflections need to be seen and read as significant meditations on a decent society. Das has certainly added key questions to this Sisyphean exercise.

Shiv Visvanathan is a Social Scientist.

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