How hard it is to be good
What is here is found elsewhere.
What is not here is nowhere.
As soon as we arrived in Pondicherry, we settled in a guest house called A la ville creole, near the ocean.
Here, between the kitchen and the terrace, there is a small library with books in different languages. Among the bestsellers (John Grisham) and tour guides (mostly lonley planet), Andrea has found a book with an intriguing title: The difficulty of being good: on the subtle art of Dharma, by Gurcharan Das.
We are both new to Indian literature. As for me, the only time I came across the word Dharma was reading Jack Kerouac's The Dharma bums, a book with oriental deviations but definitely an American classic.
On the next day we started reading the book, together, while we were having breakfast on the terrace, starting with the chapter The central story of Mahabharata to understand what the text is about. But it is in the Prelude where we understood the power of this book.
(and you can download the full book HERE)
It's worth reading:
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 faraway places like Khajuraho and Angkor Wat.
She also knew of our visits to our beach house near Alibagh, where we went away with a dozen books and did nothing else but read. But she was puzzled at the prospect of an academic holiday.
As she moved to get up from her chair, I hastened to explain. I had studied philosophy and read the great books of the West during college. But I had never read the classics of my own
country. The closest I had come was to take Daniel Ingalls’s Sanskrit classes at Harvard as an undergraduate. Now, forty 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?’ I looked at her—she was still a handsome woman with extremely fine skin. ‘Why don’t we go to the Turkish coast instead?’ she added.
After an absorbing career in multinational companies in six countries, I had taken early retirement at fifty to become a fulltime writer. My wife and I had settled in Delhi, where I began to write a Sunday column for the Times of India and other newspapers. I travelled widely across the country in the 1990s 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 soon, perhaps 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 had indeed begun to spread across India, but goodness had not. I was angered and troubled in early 2009 by a scandal that posed a challenge to our conception of worldly success. B. Ramalinga Raju had built through talent, skill and dedication an outstanding and respected software company, and then committed the greatest fraud in Indian corporate history by swindling his company of Rs 7,136 crore. As a result, the public— both Indian and foreign investors—had lost around Rs 23,000 crore in the value of their shares, and the 50,000 employees of Satyam faced an uncertain future.
I had met Raju ten years earlier. I had looked him in the eye and I had seen sincerity, competence and great purpose. Soon after, I had run into one of his customers in the US and she spoke glowingly about Satyam’s dedication to quality, reliability and integrity. There is no tribute greater than a satisfied, passionate customer, and it explained to my foggy mind, at least in part, why India had become the world’s second fastest growing economy. Why should a person of such palpable achievement, who lacked nothing in life, turn to crime? What was the nature of moral failure in the case of the investment bankers on Wall Street who brought the world economy to its knees in 2008?
Greed is too easy an answer. There must be more to it.
I wondered if the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, held any answers. The epic is obsessed with questions 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 on the moral dilemma from every possible angle. In the Indian epic, harmony and happiness come to a society only through behaviour based on dharma—a complex word that means variously virtue, duty and law, but is chiefly concerned with doing the right thing. Would I be able to recover a meaningful ideal of civic virtue from India’s foundational text? Moral failure pervaded our public life and hung over it like Delhi’s smog. One out of five members of the Indian parliament elected in 2004 had criminal charges against him.
A survey by a Harvard professor had found that one out of every four teachers in government primary schools is absent and one out of four is simply not teaching. A World Bank study found that two out of five doctors do not show up at state primary health centres and that 69 per cent of their medicines are stolen. A cycle rickshaw driver in Kanpur routinely pays a fifth of his daily earnings in bribes to the police. A farmer cannot hope to get a clear title to his land without bribing a revenue official and that too after a humiliating ordeal of countless visits to the revenue office. In despair, I watched teachers—once revered as gurus and moral guides—fail their students; and political leaders, who had the duty to uphold the law, become lawbreakers. The abuse of power is a routine matter in the world’s largest democracy, and the entire political class has united in recent years in order to prevent political and electoral reform. It was an amazing spectacle to see the country turning middle class alongside the most appalling governance. In the midst of a booming private economy, Indians despair over the delivery of the simplest public goods.
Social scientists think of governance failures as a problem of institutions, and the solution, they say, lies in changing the structure of incentives to enhance accountability. True, but these failings also have a moral dimension.
When I announced my plan to spend the next few years reading the Mahabharata, my mother, who lived 400 km away at her guru’s ashram by the river Beas, reminded me that my restlessness was not inappropriate to the third stage of the Hindu life. Called vanaprastha, literally ‘one who goes to the forest’, such a person spends his time in reflection and searches for life’s meaning. She said that I was suffering from ‘vanaprastha melancholy’.
In the classical Indian way of life, the first stage is brahmacharya—the period of adolescence when one is a student and celibate. In the worldly second stage, called garhasthya, ‘householder’, a person produces, procreates, provides security for the family while engaging in worldly pleasure. At the third stage, one begins to disengage from worldly pursuits, and in the fourth and final stage, sannyasa, one renounces the world in quest of spiritual release from human bondage.
My mother had commended my decision to take early retirement so that I might, as she put it, ‘have a rich and prolonged third stage’. Now that I was speaking about dharma and my restlessness, she insinuated that I had detached myself insufficiently from worldly concerns. While I was not expected to become a ‘forest-dweller’, she felt that my mental makeup
remained that of a ‘lowly second stage householder’.
I explained in my defence that I was attracted to the old idea of life’s stages partly because the dharma texts recognized the value of the second stage, which was the indispensable material basis of civilization. It was important to remember this in a country that has long been mesmerized by the romantic figure of ‘the renouncer’, even before the Buddha came along.6 My mother, however, was spot on in recognizing ‘my third stage melancholy’.
During my second stage, I had felt as though I was waking up each morning, going to work, and feeding my family—only to repeat it the following day, as my children would after me and their children after them. What was the point of it all? Now in my third stage, I wanted to find a better way to live.
Meanwhile, my friends and acquaintances were incredulous.
‘So, what is this I hear about wanting to go away to read old books?’ one asked me at a dinner party. ‘Don’t tell me you are going to turn religious on us!’ exclaimed another. My wife began to explain my idea of an ‘academic holiday’ to some of the guests, who reciprocated with suitable looks of sympathy. ‘Tell us, what books are you planning to read?’ asked a retired civil servant. A self-proclaimed ‘leftist and secularist’, who had once been a favourite of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, he had the gruff, domineering accent of an English aristocrat, not surprising in a former civil servant of the old school. I admitted reluctantly that I had been thinking of reading the Mahabharata, the Manusmriti, the Kathopanishad perhaps, and ...
‘Good Lord, man!’ he exclaimed. ‘You haven’t turned saffron, have you?’
The remark upset me. Saffron is, of course, the colour of Hindu right-wing nationalism, and I wondered what sort of secularism is it that regards the reading of Sanskrit texts as a political act. I was disturbed that I had to fear the intolerance of my ‘secular’ friends as much as the bigotry of the Hindu Right, which had become a force in Indian politics over the past two
decades with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
‘Why are you going to read them?’ my persecutor demanded. ‘Well, perhaps, to learn to be good,’ I answered with a weak smile.
‘No such thing as Hindu ethics,’ he scoffed. ‘It all comes down to who you are in the pecking order. Frankly, it is too passive for my taste—all this non-violence business of Gandhi’s. It’s also too negative—keeping one’s anger in check, not doing wrong, not injuring. Give me Marx any day—now that is about changing the world!’
Surrounded by narrow and rigid positions on both sides, it was becoming increasingly difficult to be a ‘liberal Hindu’. The extremism of the ‘secularists’ was a reaction to the intolerance of
the Hindu nationalists who regarded Muslims as their natural enemies. But the contempt of the secularists for religion per se prevented them from gaining sympathy. What sort of ideas, I wondered, might help to give meaning to life when one is in the midst of fundamentalist persons of all kinds who believe that they have a monopoly on truth and some are even willing to kill
to prove that?
Hinduism is not a ‘religion’ in the usual sense. It is a civilization based on a simple metaphysical insight about the unity of the individual and the universe and has self-development as its objective. It employs innovative mental experiments of yoga that evolved in the first half of the first millennium BC, and does not have the notion of a ‘chosen people’, or a jealous God; it does not proselytize, does not hunt heretics. It could not be more different from the great Semitic religions—Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Hence, I felt I could interrogate its texts in order to learn to live a secular life in a better way.
I was born a Hindu in the Punjab and had a Hindu upbringing. Like many in the Indian middle class, I went to an English medium school that gave me a ‘modern education’. Both my grandfathers belonged to the Arya Samaj, a reformist sect that had come up in the nineteenth century. My ancestors did not have the living memory of their own political heritage and this
must have been difficult. They had lived under Muslim rulers since the thirteenth century and had regarded political life as something filled with deprivation and fear. After the Muslims,
they saw the rise of the Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh, and after its collapse around 1850, the powerful British arrived with Christian missionaries in tow. Thus, three powerful, professedly
egalitarian and proselytizing religions surrounded us—Islam, Sikhism and Christianity. As a result, they were eager to receive the Gujarati reformer Dayanand Saraswati, who established the Arya Samaj. He advocated a return to the Vedas, a diminished role for brahmins and vigorous social reform. He ‘modernized’ our Hinduism.
‘Arya’ in Sanskrit means ‘noble’ among other things. European scholars in the nineteenth century took this ancient word from the Vedic texts to propagate a racial theory of ‘Aryan’ origins of Hindu culture and society based on a common Indo–European language system. We, in the new Punjabi middle class, embraced this idea enthusiastically, for it related us racially to the European Aryans. The Arya Samaj had a positive side in helping to create a nationalist sentiment among us for freedom and independence from Britain. In contrast, the invention of an Aryan race in nineteenth century Europe had tragic consequences, culminating in the ideology of Nazi Germany. Half a century after the Second World War, the word ‘Aryan’ evokes repulsive memories of Nazism and is thoroughly discredited in the West. In India, however, it has been revived, curiously enough, with the rise of Hindu nationalism and the ascent of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
My father, however, turned away from the Arya Samaj and became a passionate mystic. When he was studying to be an engineer, he was drawn to a kindly guru, who taught him the
bhakti path of direct union with God through devotion and meditation. The guru belonged to the Radhasoami sect, descended intellectually from the medieval bhakti and Sufi traditions of Kabir, Nanak, Rumi and Mirabai. My father found his discourses ‘modern’ for they appealed to his rational, engineer’s temper.
His own decision, he once told me, was made in the scientific spirit of Blaise Pascal’s wager. If you believe in God, Pascal had said, and He turns out to exist, then you have obviously made a good decision; however, if He does not exist, and you still believe in Him, you haven’t lost anything; but if you don’t believe in Him and he does exist, then you are in serious trouble.
Amidst this, my maternal grandmother remained a traditional Hindu in Lyallpur, where I was born. Her dressing room was filled with the images of her many gods, prominent among them
being Krishna and Rama, and she would say in the same breath that there are millions of gods but only one God. Her gods and goddesses were symbols of reality rather than reality itself (as
the theologian Paul Tillich explained to me in a class at Harvard), and they helped her to reach one God. Her eclecticism did not stop there. She would visit the Sikh gurdwara on Mondays and
Wednesdays, a Hindu temple on Tuesdays and Thursdays and she saved Saturdays and Sundays for discourses by holy men, including Muslim pirs, who were forever visiting our town. In between, she made time for Arya Samaj ceremonies.
Amidst this religious chaos I grew up with a liberal attitude that was a mixture of scepticism and sympathy for the Hindu way of life. One of its attractive features is of multiple goals to the good life. The first goal is to come to grips with kama, ‘human desire’. I find it reassuring that pleasure has a valued place in the good life. A second goal is artha, ‘material well-being’, which makes sense, for how can one be happy in conditions of extreme deprivation? A third objective of life is dharma or moral wellbeing. The final goal is moksha, ‘spiritual liberation’ from our fragmented, finite and suffering existence. I have always felt that Indians are sensible, like Aristotle, in believing in multiple paths to a flourishing life.
When my wife and I returned from the dinner party, we did what everyone does. We gossiped about who was there, who said what, and to whom. I was still smarting from the remark about Hindutva, and I burst out accusingly, ‘I wish you hadn’t blabbered about my plans! You know what people are like—half of Delhi will be talking about it in twenty-four hours!’
Soon I calmed down, though, and realized that many Indians thought of classical Sanskrit texts either in religious or political terms. Mine, however, was a project in self-cultivation. I wanted to know how to live my life and I had a feeling that the answer might lie in examining the four ends of life. My first book, India Unbound, had examined the second goal of artha; the next one would be about dharma. I began to feel more secure about my endeavour—less concerned with what others would say or think about it. My wife also turned out to be a good sport, and began to see our ‘academic holiday’ as an opportunity to attend lectures on Renaissance painting and Chinese ceramics while I went off to read the Sanskrit texts. So, in the fall 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. Wintry and windy Chicago also seemed an unusual
choice for ‘a forest-dweller’ at life’s third stage. The city of Benares, the home of classical learning in north India, would have been a more conventional choice. But I did not want
to escape into ‘our great classical past’. I wanted to learn about that past with full consciousness of the present—and also to learn something about the present in encountering the past.
Sanskrit pandits in Benares seemed to me impossibly rigid and they would not have approved of my desire to ‘interrogate’ the texts.
It was a stray remark by the poet A.K. Ramanujan that 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 under the able stewardship of Jim Nye. Chicago was a logical choice. The University of Chicago had four Sanskrit scholars—two big names, Sheldon Pollock and Wendy Doniger both students of Ingalls, and Sanskrit-knowing Buddhist scholars like Steve Collins, Mathew Kapstein and Dan Arnold. I had two criteria in mind in selecting a reading list. I wanted a text from each of the major genres and I wanted it to illuminate one of the four aims of life. When it came to desire, Kamasutra, the text on erotic love and sex, was the obvious choice. The Arthashastra, a text of politics and economics, would help me with the second goal of artha. In the epic genre, I chose the Mahabharata because of dharma—its heroes were more human and fallible, unlike the Ramayana. The Upanishads were the clear choice for studying the fourth end of moksha. In my second year I planned to read the Manusmriti, the law book by Manu, which tries to reconcile the first three ends. The stories from the Kathasaritsagara would instruct me on how to live. To understand yoga, I would read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. If there was time, Kalidasa’s Shakuntala would be my drama text.
I wanted to read the texts in Sanskrit, but that would have needed a lifetime—given my shallow grasp of the language. I was hungry and impatient. So, I decided on the next best course.
I would arrive early in the morning at Regenstein and follow the drill I had learned from Daniel Ingalls. I would pull out from the shelf a volume of the Mahabharata’s Critical Edition. With Whitney’s grammar on my right and Apte’s dictionary on my left, I would read a small passage. It was hard labour, but Wendy Doniger consoled me, saying: ‘Reading Sanskrit is good for the soul.’ I would tire after an hour or so, and then I would turn to van Buitenen’s translation and read it for the rest of the morning. If I had a doubt, I would go back to the original. It was an unhurried pursuit. I did not want information. I wanted to be cultivated, and thus I read at leisure with lingering appreciation.
By the end of my first year, I had become dangerously addicted to the Mahabharata and had fallen hopelessly behind in the rest of my reading. The epic is a splendid and moving story, exciting, ironic and witty, and with a cast of characters that I became increasingly attached to. I was also intrigued by its boast:
What is here is found elsewhere.
What is not here is nowhere.
In the summer I returned to India and went to visit my mother.
On the way the train stopped at a sleepy station, about a hundred miles north of Delhi. I stepped on to the platform and discovered that this was no ordinary station—it was historic Kurukshetra, where the Mahabharata’s futile war of annihilation had been fought. In the burning heat of the summer afternoon, I began to imagine the brutal magnificence of the raging, ruthless battles. I saw a dithering Arjuna, the greatest warrior of his age, put down his Gandiva bow and refuse to fight—leaving his debonair and confident charioteer, Krishna, who is also God, with a problem on his hands. I visualized ruthless Drona grinding the exhausted Pandava armies into the dust. Suddenly he turns anxiously to his pupil, Yudhishthira, to ask if the rumour about his son’s death is true. Yudhishthira—who had never spoken false—tells a white lie and his fabulous chariot, which always travelled slightly above the ground, sinks into the dust. The train began to move and I jumped in. As I settled back, I felt that the epic might indeed have something to teach me about the right way to live in the world.
The Mahabharata tells the story of a futile and terrible war of annihilation between the children of two brothers of the Bharata family. The rival cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, both lay claim to the throne. To resolve the feud, the kingdom is divided, but the jealous Kauravas are not content, and plot to usurp the other half of the kingdom through a rigged game of dice. Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava, loses everything in the game—his kingdom, his brothers, his wife and, indeed, himself— to his rival Duryodhana. Yudhishthira’s wife, Queen Draupadi, is dragged before Duryodhana in the assembly of the nobles, where his brother Duhshasana tries to strip her:
When her dress was being stripped off, lord of the people, another one appeared every time. A terrible roar went up from all the kings, a shout of approval, as they watched that greatest wonder on the earth . . . [In the end] a pile of clothes was heaped up in the middle of the hall, when Duhshasana, tired and ashamed, at last desisted and sat down.
With this act of ‘cosmic justice’, the assembly should have been forced to confront the question of dharma, the central problem of the Mahabharata. But the elders fail to address it, and the failure hangs over the entire epic, leading to a destructive and terrible war between the rivals.
Dharma, the word at the heart of the epic, is in fact untranslatable. Duty, goodness, justice, law and custom all have something to do with it, but they all fall short. Dharma refers to ‘balance’—both moral balance and cosmic balance. It is the order and balance within each human being which is also reflected in the order of the cosmos. Dharma derives from the Sanskrit root dhr, meaning to ‘sustain’. It is the moral law that sustains society, the individual and the world. In the dharma texts, it commonly means the whole range of duties incumbent on each individual according to his varna, ‘status’, or ashrama, ‘stage of life’. The Mahabharata, however, will also challenge this latter meaning. This conceptual difficulty, such complexity, is part of the point. Indeed, the Mahabharata is in many ways an extended attempt to clarify just what dharma is—that is, what exactly should we do when we are trying to be good in the world.
When I began my quest for dharma, I did not imagine that I would be undertaking an enterprise quite so bizarre. I tried to picture the look of shocked incomprehension on Yudhishthira’s face when he loses his kingdom and his wife in the dice game and this happens at the very moment of his greatest triumph when he is consecrated ‘king of kings’. He could only suppose that his world had gone awry. Gradually, I began to realize that the dice game may be symbolic of the quixotic, vulnerable human condition in which one knows not why one is born, when one will die, and why one faces reverses on the way. The only thing certain, the Mahabharata tells us, is that kala (time or death) is ‘always cooking us’.
In this cauldron fashioned from delusion, with the sun as fire and day and night as kindling wood, the months and seasons as the ladle for stirring, Time (or Death) cooks all beings: this is the simple truth.
Could one depend on dharma to protect one in this uncertain world? If so, how does a person go about finding dharma? In a life and death debate with the Yaksha, a tree spirit, who controls the waters of a lake, thirsty Yudhishthira is asked this very question. The right answer will save him and his brothers; the wrong answer will mean their death. He tells the Yaksha that in seeking dharma ‘reason is of limited use for it is without foundation; neither are the sacred texts helpful as they are at odds with one another; nor is there a single sage whose opinion could be considered authoritative. The truth about dharma is hidden in a cave.’
To help me to search in this cave, I had to depend on a gambling addict and a loser. A curious choice for a guide, you might think. Yudhishthira is so fraught with frailties to be almost an ‘un-hero’. His world is off balance and the god, Krishna, ‘constantly feeds this imbalance, fostering disorder’. Although he is a warrior, he lacks physical prowess, distrusts martial values and feels helpless. What redeems him, however, is that he insists on not being anything other than himself. Alone, he confronts the possibility that the universe might not care about dharma. Originally, the epic set out to narrate a tale of triumph but, in fact, ended in telling a story of defeat. Early versions of the epic used to go by the name Jaya, meaning ‘victory’, and the bard, it seems, did want to narrate a story of triumph. Indeed, the epic announces unambiguously at the beginning of Book One:
The king who seeks conquest should listen to this history named Jaya for he will conquer the whole earth and defeat his enemies.
I felt something was clearly wrong when the epic begins with a remarkable murderous rite performed by King Janamejaya, the great-grandson of the valiant hero of the Mahabharata, Arjuna. He is holding a sacrifice to kill all the world’s snakes in order to avenge his father, Parikshit, who has been killed by a snake.
Not a promising start for a heroic epic. The story is also wacky— it is about a war between the ‘children of a blind pretender fighting the sons of a man too frail to risk the act of coition’. The winner of the war is reluctant, pacific Yudhishthira, who does not want to fight but who, in fact, gives the order for the war to begin. Then he goes on to win the war, not by skill and excellence
but by deception and trickery. After the bloody victory, he suffers inconsolably and bitterly, his mind in torment, consumed by guilt and shame for what has happened:
I have conquered this whole earth . . . But ever since finishing this tremendous extermination of my kinsmen, which was ultimately caused by my greed, a terrible pain aches in my heart without stopping ... This victory looks more like defeat to me.
The victory ‘looks more like defeat’ to Yudhishthira because he is left wondering what the ridiculous war has been all about.
They try to calm his burning grief but not very convincingly.
Yudhishthira has seen through the disturbing chaos of the world— too much envy, hypocrisy, greed, ego and revenge on one side, and too much deceit on the other and instigated by no less than Krishna, the God. Yudhishthira’s mournful regret at the war’s end is the all-too-familiar sadness for the defective human condition. The Mahabharata is a profoundly ironic text with a ‘very modern sense of the absurd’.
Yudhishthira persists in his Faustian search for dharma until the end. He hopes to find goodness in heaven but he encounters the villainous Duryodhana instead. In hell, he finds his virtuous wife and his brothers rather than the wicked. The old look of incomprehension appears on his face, which reminded me of Sisyphus, the Greek hero, who was punished for betraying secrets of the gods to men, and who was condemned to push a huge rock up a hill. Each time he nears the peak, the stone rolls down to the bottom and Sisyphus must begin all over again.
Yudhishthira has the same look on his face as Sisyphus when he sees the rock rolling back down. It is the realization that life may well be absurd and futile.
I had hoped that my search for dharma might help to lift me out of my own third stage melancholy. For thirty years I had gone to work each morning. I had fed and looked after my
family. My wife and I had raised two children. Gradually, I had moved up the corporate hierarchy with higher pay and more responsibility. At fifty, I asked myself, what had I really achieved? What had all this been for? Is this all there was to life?
I had been tremendously competitive throughout my corporate life, but I could not reconcile to my boss’s view, who felt ‘it is not enough to do well. Someone has to lose, and you must be the one to win’. Duryodhana would have approved of my boss’s big-chested sentiments, but I wondered, once one’s youth, vigour and the thrill of winning are gone, what happens then? How long could an adult be expected to be motivated by a 0.5 per cent gain in the monthly market share of Vicks Vaporub or Pampers?
I felt weary by the time I was fifty, and it was this feeling of futility that drove me, in part, to early retirement. My kshatriyalike craving to win was disappearing and my job had begun to resemble the futile labours of Yudhishthira. I identified with Karna’s sense of mortality in the Mahabharata, who says, ‘I see it now: this world is swiftly passing.’
Thoughts such as these—of life’s futility, of one’s mortality, and the relentless passage of time—tend to drive one to religion.
Instead, they made me ask, like Iris Murdoch, if virtue is the main thing of worth in our life. The familiar pain of being alive and being human made me admire Yudhishthira’s commitment to dharma all the more—to satya, ‘truth’, ahimsa, ‘non-violence’ and anrishamsya, ‘compassion’. I wondered if acts of goodness might be one of the very few things of genuine worth in this world, and might give meaning to my life.
In my second year of study, I focused more and more on the Mahabharata. My other readings suffered but this book began to take shape. I realized that each major hero in the epic embodies a striking virtue or a failing—and the hero’s story is an attempt to clarify this moral idea, whose significance goes well beyond the narrative to the very heart of dharma. Duryodhana has many flaws, but the driving one is envy, and in Chapter 1, I examine this destructive vice in our private and public lives. Arjuna’s despair over killing his kinsmen is a celebrated protest against war in Chapter 4, and I raise the question if it is possible to have ‘just’ wars. Bhishma’s selflessness in Chapter 5 made me wonder if it is possible for a human being to ‘be intent on the act and not its fruits’; I asked myself if a person’s ego could shrink that far— in other words, is karma yoga as hopelessly idealistic as Marx’s notion of equality? Karna’s anxiety over his social position in Chapter 6 trumps his finer qualities and made me think about the place of inequality and caste in human society. Ashwatthama’s awful revenge in Chapter 8 set me thinking about forgiveness and retributive justice in our lives. Yudhishthira’s remorse after the war in Chapter 9 made me examine the related ideas of grief, reconciliation and non-violence. And so on. As I pored over the narrative of each hero, I realized that my own understanding of dharma was growing deeper. To the sceptical reader, I might suggest dipping into Chapter 4 or 6 to get a quick idea about what I am doing in this book, although my favourites are Chapter 5 and 10.
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 is supposed to deal with the world of ‘appearances’, not of reality or of the eternal soul. Indeed, a central episode in the epic dramatizes 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 nonviolent ascetic. To avert a crisis of the throne, the dying Bhishma, his grandfather, tries to dissuade him, teaching him that the dharma of a political leader cannot be moral perfection. Politics is an arena of force. An upright statesman must learn to be prudent and follow a middle path. A king must wield danda, ‘the rod of force’, embodied in retributive justice in order to protect the innocent.
The Mahabharata is suspicious of ideology. It rejects the idealistic, pacifist position of 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 sends a wrong signal to cheats. With my background in Western philosophy, I was tempted to view the ideas of the epic, especially dharma, from a modern viewpoint. More than once I had to warn myself to beware of transposing contemporary ideas on to another historical context, but I am not sure I succeeded in this.
I sometimes wonder why a pre-modern text like the Mahabharata ought to matter in our postmodern world. What sort of meaning does the past hold for us? What is the relationship between the original historical meaning of the text (assuming we can discover it) and its meaning to our present times? Take, for example, the game of dice. If the episode is merely an enactment of an ancient ritual then it obviously has limited moral significance. But the
Mahabharata seeks other explanations, for example, in Yudhishthira’s weakness for gambling, which suggests that the epic believes that the game does have moral meaning. The point is that we should not be guilty of reading too much ‘into’ the text, but try to read ‘out’ as much as we can for our lives. There may also be more than one meaning.
I find myself sometimes using expressions such as: ‘What is the epic telling us?’ The fact is that the epic may be saying a multiplicity of things to different readers at different times in history. There is no one meaning.
Hence, one should not expect too much coherence in it, especially when it comes to the ambiguous and even unsolvable nature of political power. The good news is that it is perfectly permissible to interrogate the text as I have done, and the Mahabharata would even applaud it.
Of course, the Mahabharata is also a thrilling story. I wanted to share my excitement of the narrative—its simple and direct language comes through even in translation. As I pick up the
thread of the story in each chapter, I quote extensively in order to give the reader a ‘feel’ for the text. I also follow the epic’s example: I stop the action from time to time in order to examine more closely the moral idea that the action has thrown up, trying to understand how the idea relates to our daily lives in both a personal and a broader social and political sense. For the reader’s convenience, I have provided a summary of the central story at the beginning of the book, as well as a dramatis personae and a tree of the Bharata family. I have also narrated the story of the historical evolution of the word dharma at the end of the book.
The Mahabharata winds its way leisurely, with a steady aim, through masses of elaborate treatises on law, philosophy, religion, custom, even geography and cosmography, together with a formidable array of episodes and legends, piled up at various distances along its course.
Interwoven with the main events of the narrative are fascinating subplots: the romance of Nala and Damayanti, written with such simplicity that I was able to read it in my first year Sanskrit class with Daniel Ingalls; the legend of Savitri, whose devotion to her dead husband persuades Yama, the god of death, to restore him to life; descriptions of places of pilgrimage; and many other myths and legends. Indeed, the Mahabharata is a virtual encyclopaedia of ancient India. It is an important source of information about the life of the times and the evolution of Hinduism and the influence of Buddhism. Thus, it is said, ‘the Mahabharata is not a text but a tradition’.
The clash of ideas is especially dramatic and noisy in India, a country where cultural memories are preserved with more loyalty and steadfastness than almost anywhere else.
The centuries during which the epic took shape were a period of transition from the religion of Vedic sacrifice to the sectarian, internalized worship of later Hinduism, and different sections of the poem express varying and sometimes contradictory beliefs. Clashes in India do not lead to rejections or radical reversals but result in accretions and steady proliferation. This is the synthetic Indian way. The epic has been retold in written and oral vernacular versions throughout South and Southeast Asia and has always enjoyed immense popularity. Its various incidents have been portrayed in Indian miniature paintings and in sculpted relief in temples across India and far away in Borobudur in Indonesia and Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
The entire Mahabharata is made up of almost 100,000 couplets— its length is seven times that of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined—divided into eighteen parvans or ‘books’. Its author is said to be the sage Vyasa (literally ‘the compiler’), who appears as a character in the poem. More likely it was composed by a great number of bardic poets and revised by priests who added substantially to the ever-expanding text over a long period and was passed on for generations by oral tradition. Professional sutas, ‘bards’, were the original poets and singers when Brahminism had not separated its priest caste greatly from other Aryans. The brahmin redaction, which is all that now remains, took its present form between 200 BC and AD 200.’ Comparing over a hundred different versions from different parts of the country, Sanskrit scholars in the twentieth century published a Critical Edition of the epic under V.S. Sukthankar’s leadership at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune.
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey have invited many acts of homage from translators in many languages. John Keats, the English poet, was so taken with an Elizabethan verse translation of ‘deep-browed’ Homer that he published a sonnet in its honour, entitled ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’. It had left him with a combined sense of shock and uplift, and he felt like:
some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken.
The Mahabharata has not been so fortunate. It has had no Chapman, no Lattimore. The only full-scale English translation is by K.M. Ganguly from the late nineteenth century and it is ‘grating and refractory’. The University of Chicago Press’s project remains incomplete, although a fine translation of Books 11 and 12 by James Fitzgerald has appeared recently in a fourth volume.
There is hope of a new translation of the epic in a beautiful parallel text (Sanskrit/English) edition on paper of rare quality in the Clay Sanskrit Library (CSL). Ten volumes have appeared, of which my favourites are the battle books, translated by Vaughan Pilikian (Drona), Adam Bowles (Karna) and Justin Meiland (Shalya).
For the beginner the short prose versions into English by R.K. Narayan or C.V. Narasimhan are a good place to start. They capture the weft and warp of the story, although neither has the majestic music of the original in the same way as Pilikian’s poetic translation of the Drona (CSL) or W.J. Johnson’s verse version of the tenth book, Sauptikaparvan.
The Mahabharata is about our incomplete lives, about good people acting badly, about how difficult it is to be good in this world. It turned out to be a fine guide in my quest to make some sort of sense out of life at its third stage. I set out with the assumption that ‘nature does not give a man virtue; the process of becoming a good man is an art’. I am not sure if the Mahabharata has taught me the art of which Seneca speaks. If anything it has probably made me more ambivalent. Even at the end, the Pandava heroes are still looking for dharma which is hidden in a cave.
Nevertheless, although human perfection may be illusory, dharma may be ‘subtle’, and there are limits to what moral education can achieve, the epic leaves one with the confidence that it is in our nature also to be good. This thought more than any other helped to assuage my ‘third stage melancholy’. The Mahabharata believes that our lives should not have to be so cruel and humiliating. This explains its refrain, ‘dharma leads to victory!’ Although it is spoken with irony at times, the epic genuinely desires that our relationships be more honest and fair.
Since the epic is a narrative, the personal viewpoint dominates.
But the story stops often enough when the impersonal viewpoint takes over.
Goethe pointed out long ago that the impersonal viewpoint within us produces a desire for goodness, fairness and equality, while the personal one wishes the opposite, seeking only one’s own gain, often at the expense of others. This conflict between our divided selves underlies the dilemmas that are
faced both by the epic’s heroes and by us. Hence, it leaves us with an ‘awareness of the possibilities of life’.
My academic holiday turned out to be a much-needed corrective to my stereotypical view of the ‘spirituality’ of India in contrast to the ‘rationality’ of the West. From the beginning, the West has sought for what was ‘wondrous in the East’ and it seemed to find it in India’s religious and spiritual identity. This focus on the exotic neglected the ‘deep-seated heterogeneity of Indian traditions’. Indians, for their part, have been happy to embrace this self-image of ‘spirituality’ as a way to recover their self-esteem after long years of colonial history. It makes them feel superior to the ‘materialistic’ West. But they have paid a price. In their obsession with moksha, the ‘spiritual’ end, they sometimes lose sight these days of the three worldly goals— dharma, artha, and kama—which are needed to lead a more balanced life. These are the very pursuits that the Mahabharata commends to its listeners:
When this great incomparable tale, esteemed
By dispassionate men of wide erudition,
Is studied in detail, their spreading insight
Into the three pursuits will conquer the earth.
(From The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma by Gurcharan Das, Oxford University Press, 2010)