Story telling is a fascinating art. Being Indians we all grew up listening to several stories from our parents and grandparents. I remember spending hours with Dadu, my grandfather (endearingly called so) listening to his accounts of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. How people were forced to migrate from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to Calcutta (now Kolkata). One remarkable experience I had with Dadu, was the narration of the story of the Mahabharata. He seemed to know every single detail, remember every single name and enraptured in awe of the epic, I sat there listening to him for hours. The epic is so common a story in every Indian household that there is hardly any soul who will say he has not heard of it.
Years after getting hold of the book by the renowned P&G CEO turned author Gurcharan Das; The Difficulty of Being Good, I felt like I was transported to those story telling days, at the same time finding an altogether new perspective from the epic.
The lucidity of the book leaves you enchanted, as if you were having a conversation with the author peppered with stories of real life encounters of the congruent dharma conjectures (dharma sankat) making the narration even more engaging.
Elaborating the perplexing subject of dharma, the author, Gurcharan Das, has surprised us all by his contemporary analogy of the Mahabharata with our modern day world. The eerie resemblance of the epic with our day to day
moral dilemmas (in the course of human nature) renders us dumbfounded. The author leaves us in a stupefied trance in every attempt of his
explanation of 'dharma'. Thus elucidating how intricate the understanding of dharma can be and how difficult it is in reality to be good. He admonishes us not to confuse dharma with religion. Dharma appeals to a person to pay heed to his
morals whereas religion can restrict a being, compelling him to fear an omniscient and omnipresent God. He enlightens us about the fact that dharma is not about
renouncing worldly pleasures only to find oneself spending the rest of their lives meditating in the forest. It is a much deeper concept.
Dharma is a subtle word he says. Like the grains of sand the more we try to grasp it, the more it goes slithering from between our fingers, the same way the knowledge of dharma is but a transient concept which evolves and moulds taking the shape of our moral conscience while moving ahead.
It all started with the rigged game of dice in which Yudhishthira had lost all his possessions including his kingdom, brothers and shockingly his own wife, the queen Draupadi. In an heinous act of humiliation, by the Kauravas, the queen was dragged down from her chambers to an all mens assembly. This incident without a speckle of doubt is the most significant watershed in the story. That day when Draupadi was being shamed, the learned men sat there watching without raising a single voice against Dushyasana’s contemptible act, revealing the patriarchy pervading very inch of the society. The bold Draupadi didn’t budge down, she questioned the king Yudhishthira instead about who he had dared to gamble first. If he lost himself first and himself were a slave, how did he possess the authority to put her at stake. On the other hand if she was the one he bet first then he failed as a husband , a protector or a king for that matter. Thus begins a series of moral dilemmas the author puts forward in order to shed light on the true interpretation of Dharma. Bhisma, the grandfather of the Kurus and the Pandavas, strives to answer this moral conundrum.
He explains that Yudhishthira was certainly a slave, having lost himself in the gamble initially however as a man, he had ultimate rights over his wife even as a slave. A man who is king, commoner or slave is allowed to stake his wife as property as he had correctly done.
This leads to Draupadi’s second question----‘What is the dharma of the king?’ Was it not to protect the realm and his family, was it not to question injustice. This time around the idea of dharma was not whether she was fairly won but what was right. The confusion might have lawfully exclaimed her as a slave, rightfully won if one goes by the book, but she breaks prejudices by proclaiming that the law might not always be right. This predicament was a golden opportunity for Duryodhana. He not only succeeded in humiliating Draupadi but also was waiting with bated breath for Yudhishthira to stand up for his wife and family giving way to questioning his celebrated moral standards and proving himself a liar who did not stick to his word. From Yudhishthira’s perspective it was rather difficult to be good in such moral paradoxes.
What makes Draupadi’s second question even more admirable is that the fact that she demands accountability. This can be clarified by an example cited by the author. He points out the inefficient bureaucracy of our system. Every year about 100,000 people gather at the banks of the Narmada at Dharaji in Madhya Pradesh. This is well known to the authorities. The Indira Sagar power plant releases water into this river for the generation of electricity at around 690cubic meters per second. May 7, 2005 record 62 deaths by drowning. A later investigation revealed the district officials had sent a letter by normal mail to the Power Plant which failed to reach on time. The IAS responsible Ashish Srivastava was exonerated as he has followed his duty. The investigation also revealed phone lines in both the offices were working fine. Who is to be responsible then for the deaths? Documents had yet again saved the day.
The next phase of the story is the forest dwelling period where Yudhishthira is constantly grilled by Draupadi. She is distressed by Yudhishthira’s reaction towards the hardships they were going through. The troubled Draupadi tells Yudhishthira ---‘Why be good?’ Dharma, I find, does not protect you. She points out to Yudhishthira to fight for his lost kingdom following his dharma as a kshatriya. Which he counter argues by saying that he had given his word. Drunk in his moral virtues he claims that to fight was easy to forgive was difficult. Being good was, thus difficult. Draupadi was not to be easily convinced. So he continued by saying that one shall win heaven by adhering to good karma in one’s life. When Draupadi was still not satisfied, Yudhishthira turns towards the social benefits from moral action. He calls dharma to be a ship that guides the mankind through his life and human beings cooperate and coexist because they follow such moral laws of ‘satya’, telling the truth and ‘ahimsa’, non-violence. This catch-22 situation brings us to the tale of Kaushika, an ascetic without much learning. One fine day he finds a group of thieves running after a man for his life who apparently witnessed their crime. Kaushika saw the man hiding in the forest. The dilemma before him lies to be of satya and ahimsa (telling the truth or saving a life ) . Not understanding the true meaning of dharma he relies on telling the truth which leads to killing of the man. At that point dharma required him to tell ‘a white lie’. Thus Kaushika was punished with a life in gruesome hell.
The author renders a real life example of such a moral fuss when the congress presidential candidate Pratibha Patil was about to take office. She was alleged to have opened a cooperative bank in Maharashtra the license of which was revoked by the Reserve Bank of India on grounds of sanctioning rampant loans to her own relatives including granting illegal loan waivers in some cases. A Bhisma like character of unquestionable integrity, the then prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh was extremely reticent of her questioned candidature, calling it a mudslinging by the opposition and the nation believed him.
The story also highlights Bhisma’s act of selflessness where he deliberately chose celibacy in order to ensure that the future generation don’t end up killing each other on matters of property as his father had already remarried and he had step brothers in line for the throne. He abdicated his right to the throne as well. It was only when all his step brothers had died and their children too young to rule that he became the king regent in their stead. This was an exceptional act of ‘nishkama karma’ which is a desire less action or a selfless act where he had no personal stake. An act of a true ‘karma yogi’. In modern times we can refer to Mahatma Gandhi as karma yogi who in spite of playing the key role in the freedom struggle of India refused to take any named position in the political body.
The major turning point in Mahabharata comes when the the Pandavas complete their end of the deal, that is after their forest dwelling period and a year in masquerade come to an end, they go to Duryodhana to reclaim their inheritance which he outrightly refuses. Yudhishthira is left no choice but to declare war against the Kauravas. He proclaimed that no law can be found against killing enemies who are already plotting to kill you. He follows the evolutionary principle of ‘reciprocal altruism’ which is putting up a friendly face to the world at the same time not letting oneself get exploited. In other words, tit for tat. Yet again being good was not the best respite for Yudhisthira.
When the famous war of Kurukshetra was about to begin. Arjuna’s despair comes into focus. He had Krishna as his mentor and charioteer and he himself had set up high goals regarding his Kshatriya dharma. When the time came to to actually fight the war, finding his relatives and other dear ones standing against him Arjuna finds himself in a ‘dharamsankat’ (moral dilemma). Faced with the horror of their deaths he refuses to fight. Thus begins the famous dialogues of persuasion by Krishna to Arjuna which goes on to form the Bhagvad Gita. Also Krishna does not always heed the moral path to winning in the war. He time and again justifies that the end is more important than the means and deeds done for the greater good has to give more importance. That everything is fair in a war that is being fought for the right reasons. Trying to be morally righteous could cause them their lives. Such is his justification for killing Drona by falsely announcing the death of Ashwathama his son, when only an elephant named, Ashwathama had died. Also when the turn came to defeat the invincible Bhisma, owing to his oath of never fighting women, they made Shikandi stand in the battlefield forcing Bhisma to put down his weapons. Similar is the case of Karna who not only had his shield taken away by Indra in disguise as a brahmin (Karna had an oath of never refusing a Brahmin) but also he was shot in the battlefield when the wheel of his chariot stuck in the muddy terrain and he went down to fix it. Even though the rules ofthe war dictated that one should not strike if the opponent is not ready.
That being so, the author has emphasised the veritable complicacies of dharma in different situations. He claims the World war II as a just war, in terms that the defeat of the Nazi regime was a just cause. He reprimands us about the havoc that could have been caused had Hitler won the war. In the light of the holocaust period he also reminds us that the non-violent struggle to overthrow the British Raj in India worked perhaps because the rulers were not dictators, they demanded the people’s cooperation in order to flourish together as a nation. But the same theory would never have worked in case of the Jews. They would’ve and in fact were shot dead in the slightest pretence of resistance. Hence, the question of what is the correct dharma to be followed and who decides it’s credibility yet again throttles us.
Mahabharata is thus the story of our incomplete lives, about good people acting badly and how difficult it is to be good in this world. Good behaviour is not rewarded is the epic rather the virtuous face banishment while the wicked flourish in their palaces. This epic fails to explain why even morally right people had to resort to unfair means to win in the war. Raising doubts on their so called good intentions. Perfection, henceforth, remains an illusion and we all are a mixture of good and evil.
The Mahabharata ends with Yudhishthira filled with remorse from the deaths and despair he threw his kingdom into. The author brings into notice how President Truman seeing the photographs of the innocent victims of Hiroshima aborts his plans of further dropping of atomic bombs in Japanese cities. Thus the Mahabharata urges us to resort to our moral more ethical self in the course of our lives. However difficult it may to be good, an act of goodness can have huge reverberations towards human welfare in the future.