Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Difficulty of Being Good

Some books take a long time to finish because they make you think, they make you introspect, they make you link what you know with what you are reading and they make you see things in a new light. Gurcharan Das' book "The Difficulty of Being Good - on the subtle art of Dharma" is one such book.

It was gifted to me by my boss on my birthday. I started reading it with terpidition because I am not a big fan of religious books or books that preach. But the one thing that attracted me to the book was its relationship to our epic - Mahabharata. I have always loved the Mahabharata becuase of its relevance to our daily lives. And I have always been troubled by the epic because good never seems to triumph without a little bit of cheating. So I started reading the book to see if it would help me understand these dichotomies. Did someone else have these thoughts too and try to work out the answers?

Gurcharan Das starts off the book with an explanation of how he took a sabatical from consulting to do a detailed study of The Mahabharata. From that moment on he catches your attention as he tackles and explains the various segments of the epic from the principal character's prespectives - Duryodhana's Envy, Draupadi's Courage, Yudhishthira's Duty, Arjuna's Despair, Bhishma's Selflessness, Karna's Status Anxiety, Krishna's Guile, Ashwatthama's Revenge, Yudhishthira's Remorse and finally summarising it all in Mahabharata's Dharma.

The central theme of the book is, of course, the search for what 'Dharma' really means and how does it apply to today's world? Each chapter of the book analyses and searches for the true meaning of 'Dharma' from each character's perspective. When questioned by Draupadi as to why Yudhishthira accepted exile and did not assemble and army and fight for his right, what use is this when the villians are enjoying the luxuries of the palace while the good ones are sleeping on hard earth, why be good?, Yudhishthira's reply " I act because I must" has the deepest meaning as he tries to explain the that being good in the face of difficulties is the highest dharma. When Darupadi questions all the people in the palace as she is being dragged by her hair and disrobed and as she turns to Bheesma for an answer, his reply that "Dharma is subtle" underlines his inner turmoil on what is right and wrong in the face of dharma. When Arjuna keeps his bow down in battle, Krishna's explanation of different forms of dharma exposes the subtleity of the concept.

Across the book Gurcharan Das' draws an analogy to the various other epic scripts and philosophers and tries to explain how the concept of dharma resonates across epics and different forms. His explanations draw you into an inner realm of thought process as you look at Mahabharata in a new light. You understand and appreciate how the epic challenged the various concepts of the day and brought to the fore the hidden aspects of soceity and forced us to face them - Kunti's pre-marital alliance with Surya and her decision to give up her baby, Dhritarashtra's love for his son that overshadows everything else and leads up to the war, Draupadi's questions in the sabha when a woman was supposed to keep her head down and listen.

But in the end the book helped solve some of my queries in the sense that sometimes good has to take the side of small cheating to attain the bigger good. The overall good oevrshadows the small evils. Although I still question, does it?

In Gurcharan Das' mind the real hero of Mahabharata is Yudhishthira who has all aspects of being a good leader and fulfills all dharma. He accepts the reality and says "I act because I must". Over a period of time he accepts his dharma as a king and kshatriya, tries his level best to garner peace but finally agrees to war while at the same time letting the stakeholders know that the outcome cannot be all good, fights the war while lying for the first time for the greater good, has immense remorse for the outcome of the war and the death, almost gives up his throne after the hard faought war, realises his dharma of being a king, gives up the kingdom after setting things right, refuses to go to heaven when he is not allowed to take the dog that has been following him, refuses to leave hell when he sees his brothers and kin there and in the end shows the right way to lead life.

Yudhishthira shows the highest form of dharma - arnishyamsa - compassion. Can we do that in real life?

The book will make you think and introspect. So if you are ready to spend time with yourself and see Mahabharata in a new light, this book is for you.

I rate it 4/5 and is a book that I will definitely go back to later in life!


  1. Full of irrational and dogmatic interpretations!

    No doubt it is great attempt to offer new vistas to reader. His positive and steady tone has added much value to the book than his style and content.

    But I felt, in many places his funny comparisons and interpretations of Mahabharath certainly will spoil an innocent reader. I found there are very serious irrational and dogmatic analyses. He says Yudhishtara with capitalist mind set and Dhuryodhana with communist mind set possessed by their greed and envy and this led to serious conflict in between them...Neither the author seems understood the spirit and the nature of Mahabharath nor he understood the stuff like capitalism, socialism thoroughly..

    And so many such funny comparisons and interpretations...

    Nowadays many writers are becoming crazy of applying their narrow views to Puranas and historical stuff and to some extent they also have mediocre follower ship.

    Today I have gone through an article by Amrtyasen on this book and I seriously think that Amartysen sen became blind by the aura of Gurucharan Das.