Morality is natural – but difficult
Sunil K Pandya
Gurcharan Das. The difficulty of being good: on the subtle art of dharma. New Delhi: Allen Lane; 2009. 434 pp. ISBN 9780670083497
In 2002, Mr Das “decided to take an academic holiday”. His purpose was not to visit destinations frequented by tourists, howsoever enlightened they may be. Instead he travelled to the University of Chicago, where he and his wife spent the next two years. He delved into the rich collection of books and other texts on the Mahabharata in the Regenstein Library and interacted with scholars such as Sheldon Pollack, Wendy Doniger, Steve Collins, Mathew Kapstein and Dan Arnold. Eventually he was to spend six years continuously with the epic before crystallising his thoughts and concept into this book. His comparison of the Mahabharata to the great western epics such as the Odyssey and the Iliad is especially welcome as it emphasises the many strengths of the former.
As far as possible he studied the almost 100,000 couplets of the Mahabharata in Sanskrit – hard labour but “good for the soul”. Over time he made more than nodding acquaintance with scores of works on the epic. One of the strengths of his book is the privilege he grants his readers of seeing these master works through his eyes whilst providing opportunities for consulting them through his list of references.
He summarises the epic at the start of the book and then proceeds through its crucial episodes, providing illustrative anecdotes and drawing lessons from the thoughts and actions of the various prota gonists.
He derives the first part of the title of his book from the fact that the epic is about our incomplete lives, about good people acting badly and about how difficult it is to be good in this world.
“All very well,” you might say, “but how does this concern readers of a journal on medical ethics?”
In the prelude Mr Das tells us of his increasing disquiet at the “moral failure that pervades our public life and hangs over it like Delhi’s smog”. Envy, self-importance, anxiety on one’s own status and the desire for revenge are some of the ugly sides of human vanity encountered in the epic and dissected by Mr Das for our benefit. Let me just quote Mr Das on one of these: “Envy is thus a leveler and it levels downwards. Instead of motivating one to better performance… envy prefers to see the other person fall. The envious person is willing to see both sides lose…”
In undertaking his study he sought ideas that would give meaning to life under these circumstances.
At the heart of the epic he encountered the changing concepts of dharma – moral and cosmic balance. He devotes chapter 10 to this subject and not surprisingly quotes at the start from Mahabharata XVIII.113.8: “One should never do to another what one regards as injurious to oneself. This, in brief, is the law of dharma.” Elsewhere in the chapter we learn that when Yaksha asks Yudhishthira, “What is the highest dharmain the world?” Yudhishthira replies simply, “Compassion is the highest dharma.” The quotation from the Mahabharata sums up this concept in the final chapter: “Who has in his heart always the well-being of others and is wholly given, in acts, thoughts and in speech to the good of others, he alone knows what dharmais.” Mr Das reminds us that the basic principle of dharmais the realisation of the dignity of the human spirit. Vivekananda’s “dharmaof humanity” forms an ethical code applicable to the whole of mankind.
Throughout the book we encounter references to satya, ahimsa (not harming others) and maitri (benevolence) as the components of compassion. We are also introduced to the term anrishamsya – embodying compassion, altruism and paying heed to the needs and interests of others. The 18th century philosopher Francis Hutcheson’s phrase “calm universal benevolence” strikes a chord, as does Auguste Comte’s “religion of humanity”.
If “moral rules are the minimum demands of behaviour that a civilised society expects from its members,” our society in general and in our profession appears to give these rules short shrift. In the final chapter Mr Das tells us about how we are false to others, how we oppress fellow beings, how deeply unjust we are in our day-to-day lives and the lessons to be learnt from the Mahabharata on the means for overcoming these failings. In his concluding chapter he points out that morality is natural to the way human beings have evolved.
There is much else that is of great interest in this book. Take the concept of heroes. “A society without saints and heroes would be impoverished.” “Heroes (are) of many kinds: heroes of sacrifice, heroes of self-control,…heroes of truth,…heroes of giving, …heroes of intellect, …heroes of patience,…heroes of honesty,…heroes of tranquility”.
He discusses more than once the questions: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, “Why be good?”, “Is it right to abandon the individual to save the family?”, “Can dharma be taught?” and other similar issues.
Lest you think that this book is an epitome of sobriety, let me allay your anxiety by pointing to just one example of hilarity – Mr Das’ account of the frustration experienced by Mr Arun Shourie when, as minister of administrative reforms, he tried to answer a query on whether government officers could use inks other than blue and black. He also uses several contemporary examples of unethical acts such as the misdeeds of the Ambanis and Mrs Pratibha Patil.
After reading this book for the first time (as I shall surely return to it), I am also inspired to revisit the epic itself. I shall now do so with fresh insights provided by Mr Das and the host of philosophers to whom he refers throughout his book. I strongly commend this book.