What blacken our days are the insistent reminders of governance failure, hanging over us like Delhi’s smog. What kind of answers can be found in the Mahabharata, which is obsessed with questions of right and wrong?

In the spring of 2002 I decided to take an academic holiday. My wife thought it a strange resolve. She was familiar with our usual holidays, when we armed ourselves with hats and blue guides and green guides and trudged up and down over piles of temple stones in places like Khajuraho and Angkor Wat. As she moved to get up from her chair, I explained that I had studied the great books of the West during college but I had never read the Indian classics. The closest I had come was to take Daniel Ingalls’ Sanskrit classes at Harvard as an undergraduate. Now, 40 years later, I yearned to go back and read the texts of classical India, if not in the original, at least with a scholar of Sanskrit nearby. My wife gave me a sceptical look, and after a pause, she said, ‘It’s a little late in the day for a mid-life crisis, isn’t it?’

In the 1990s I travelled widely across the country and from these travels emerged a book, India Unbound. In it I wrote about India’s economic rise and concluded that it was increasingly possible to believe that for the first time in history Indians would emerge from a struggle against want into an age when the large majority would be at ease.

Prosperity has indeed begun to spread across India. Happiness, alas, has not. What blacken our days are the insistent reminders of governance failure, hanging over us like Delhi’s smog. I am not only thinking of corruption in its usual sense — of a politician who is caught taking a bribe. My anguish comes from something else—from a recent national survey that found that one out of four teachers in a government primary school is absent and one out of four is not teaching. Another study found that two out of five doctors do not show up at state primary health centers and that 69 per cent of the medicines are stolen. A cycle rickshaw driver in Kanpur routinely pays a sixth of his daily earnings in bribes to the police. A farmer in an Indian village cannot hope to get a clear title to his land without the humiliation of bribing a revenue official. One out of five members of the Indian parliament elected in 2004 had criminal charges against him; one in eighteen had been accused of murder or rape.

I wondered if the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, held any answers. The epic is obsessed with questions of dharma, of right and wrong — it analyses human failures constantly. Unlike the Greek epics, where the hero does something wrong and gets on with it, the action stops in the Mahabharata until every character has weighed in from every possible moral angle. Would I be able to recover a meaningful ideal of civic virtue from India’s foundational text?

In the end my wife turned out to be a good sport, and so in the autumn of 2002 we found ourselves at the University of Chicago. I was an implausible student — a husband, a father of two grown up boys, and a taxpayer with considerably less hair than his peers. Benares would have been the conventional choice, but I did not want to escape into ‘our great classical past.’ Sanskrit pundits, I feared, would not have approved of my desire to ‘interrogate’ the texts. It was a stray remark of the poet, A.K. Ramanujan, which finally pushed me to Chicago. “If you don’t experience eternity at Benares,” he said, “you will at Regenstein.” He was referring to the Regenstein Library with its fabulous collection of South Asian texts and its array of great Sanskrit scholars.

Can we change it?

After spending six years continuously with the epic, I have learned that the Mahabharata is about the way we deceive ourselves, how we are false to others, how we oppress fellow human beings, and how deeply unjust we are in our day to day lives. But is this moral blindness an intractable human condition, or can we change it? Some of our misery is the result of the way the state also treats us, and can we re-design our institutions to have a more accountable government? I have sought answers to these questions in the epic’s elusive concept of dharma, and my own search for how we ought to live has been this book’s motivating force.

The Mahabharata is unique in engaging with the world of politics. India’s philosophical traditions have tended to devalue the realm of human action, which deals with the world of ‘appearances’ not of reality. Indeed, a central episode in the epic dramatises the choice between moral purity and human action. King Yudhishthira feels guilty after the war for ‘having killed those who ought not to be killed.’ He feels trapped between the contradictory pulls of ruling a state and of being good, and wants to leave the world to become a non-violent ascetic.

To avert a crisis of the throne, the dying Bhishma, tries to dissuade him, teaching him that the dharma of a political leader cannot be moral perfection. The Mahabharata is thus suspicious of ideology. It rejects the idealistic, pacifist position of the earlier Yudhishthira as well as Duryodhana’s amoral view. Its own position veers towards the pragmatic evolutionary principle of reciprocal altruism: adopt a friendly face to the world but do not allow yourself to be exploited. Turning the other cheek often sends a wrong signal. An upright statesman must learn to be prudent and a follow a middle path. Politics is an arena of force, and a king must wield the danda, ‘rod of force’, when required.

(This article is a specially prepared word excerpt from The Difficulty of Being Good: On the subtle art of dharma , by Gurcharan Das, Allen Lane/Penguin, 2009, pp 434.)

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