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Understanding contemporary India through Mahabharat’s moral dilemmas

Welcome to Hastinapur- The Mahabharata's timeless appeal

On the subtle art of dharma

Gurcharan Das

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 centres 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.)



Welcome to Hastinapur: The Mahabharata's timeless appeal

The Difficulty of Being Good: On The Subtle Art of Dharma

Gurcharan Das


Allen Lane

Rs 699

September 11, 2009

As in the case of Gurcharan Das, it was my grandmother who introduced me to the Mahabharata in my childhood. Das returned to the epic later on in life and as his lucidly written book The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma shows, the author has used it as a base to understand the present, including the nature of capitalism.

Classics like the Mahabharata, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid have a timeless appeal. But one should guard against reading too much into their relevance to understand our times. The late Robert Fagles, whose translations of the above-mentioned books by Homer and Virgil became bestsellers, was asked by a reporter after the US invaded Iraq in 2003, “Is there a Rumsfeld in The Iliad?” Fagles replied: “Not that I know of, but isn’t one enough?”

On the face of it, to expect the Mahabharata to shed light on the global economic crisis appears a bit of a stretch. The Mahabharata believes that human beings are flawed, making our world full of unevenness, rendering us vulnerable to nasty surprises.

Peter Brook’s production of ‘The Mahabharata’, a film made in 1989

Each of the major heroes has their failings. Dhritarashtra is blind to his eldest son’s faults. Duryodhana’s monumental envy is the driving force of calamity in the epic. Arjuna despairs over killing his kinsmen. The virtuous Yudhishthira has a weakness for gambling. The flaws of epic heroes show how difficult it is to be good in a world of moral haziness.

This tale of a family in crisis is a metaphor, in Das’s book, for the economic upheavals that have engulfed the world. Capitalism may be a mode of production but it also shapes the nature of social relations between human beings who buy and sell goods in the market.

There are similar parallels throughout the book. Investment bankers on Wall Street suffered from similar moral infirmities as the heroes in the Mahabharata; they exposed the flaws in the global capitalist system. Duryodhana’s envy and greed that makes him want to annex the Pandavas’ kingdom is in tune with what big fishes do to smaller ones.

In other words, the narrative fleshes out through a tale of sibling rivalry the brutal competition of ‘interests and passions’ that is the characteristic of a ‘free market’.

 Are lessons from the Mahabharata  enough to save capitalism? Das, certainly, thinks that a healthy dose of Dharma may restore trust in the system. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that this epic, like all classics, enriches one’s concept of Man. The Mahabharata is seven times as long as The Iliad and The Odyssey combined but it has not been translated in as many languages. It has had no Fagles. Das’s book (even though it is not really a translation) will certainly make it accessible to a whole new generation.

N Chandra Mohan is an economic and business commentator


Books Excerpt

The Difficulty Of Being Wise

Gurcharan Das pans an ancient epic to retrieve lessons for today

Gurcharan Das

An Indian Morality Play

Duryodhana had many flaws but the most dangerous one was envy. He could not stand to see the Pandavas succeed and his envy is the driving force of the Mahabharata—driving it to war, death and destruction....

The sort of envy evinced by Duryodhana was not unfamiliar to me when I was growing up in Simla. My mother had a great and unrequited desire to be a part of Simla’s fashionable society. She envied those who belonged to ‘the club’, the glamorous Amateur Dramatic Club. She must have transmitted this to me, for I grew up with an acute concern over my position in society, comparing myself to those who had things that I did not possess, boys who were more attractive to girls than I was, and especially those who made it to the school cricket team....

In 2007, Anil Ambani was the fifth-richest person in the world according to the Forbes list of billionaires, but he was consumed with a Duryodhana-like envy for his more accomplished older brother, Mukesh, who was placed a notch higher on the list. Each brother had his Shakuni, who was happy to rig a game of dice in order to win the prize and destroy the other brother. Sibling rivalry within India’s wealthiest family was the longest-running soap opera in the country, having mesmerised millions for the past four years. It mattered to the nation because the enterprises of the two brothers accounted for three per cent of India’s GDP, 10 per cent of government tax revenues and 14 per cent of India’s exports. Millions of shareholders worried if their epic fight might devastate their life-long savings. I saw in this corporate and family feud a morality play and I wondered if the Mahabharata could shed some light.

Anil’s envy of Mukesh is as dangerous as Duryodhana’s. He cannot bear the fact that his brother has more fame than him.

 The first scene of the play opens in Mumbai’s Kabutarkhana in 1964. The Ambani children are growing up in a single room in a fifth floor walk-up ‘chawl’ along with six members of their family. Their father, Dhirubhai Ambani, has just set himself up as a trader in synthetic yarn in the Pydhonie market. The son of a modest schoolteacher from a village near Porbunder in Gujarat, Dhirubhai has returned from Aden with Rs 15,000 in capital. He discovers that the demand for nylon and polyester fabrics is monumental whereas supply is scarce because of rigid government controls on production and imports. This is due to India’s socialist, command economy, created by Jawaharlal Nehru. Businesses have to contend with dozens of controls in this period, which Indians wryly call ‘Licence raj’. Dhirubhai takes great risks and soon corners government licences in the black market, and begins to make large monopoly profits. His competitors cry ‘foul’; his critics call him ‘corrupt’. He understands what Leftist politicians do not—polyester is destined to become a fabric for the poor whereas they tax and control it as though it was a luxury of the rich. Hence, the mismatch between demand and supply and a black market.

Act Two: Dhirubhai ploughs his profits from trading into a technologically advanced factory to make synthetic textiles, which is up and running in record time thanks to his proximity to prime minister Indira Gandhi’s secretary. The village boy soon becomes a master gamesman of the Licence raj, manipulating a decaying and corrupt regime of controls to his advantage. He integrates backwards to create an outstanding petrochemicals company, which first makes the raw material for the textiles—polyester fibre—and then basic polymers and chemicals, until he reaches the magic raw material, petroleum.

By now his sons are grown up. They are back from business school in America, and have plunged into his company, Reliance, which is growing at a scorching pace. Opponents predict its fall after the economic reforms in the 1990s, but Reliance continues to expand and it is soon India’s largest company instead. It builds the world’s largest oil refinery in the shortest time, thanks to the project management skills of Mukesh. Next, the company begins to explore for oil and gas. As luck will have it, Reliance makes the biggest petroleum find in the world in a decade—a mountain of gas off the shore of Andhra Pradesh. It is monumental and holds the promise of easing the import burden of a fast-growing, energy-starved nation. From the ‘prince of polyester’, Dhirubhai has become the undisputed king of industrial India.

In ’07, India had a Bhishma-like person on the throne. But he deferred to his party’s choice of Pratibha Patil as President.   

 Act Three opens in 2002 when the ‘king’ is dead. Three-and-a-half million middle-class shareholders (the largest in any enterprise in the world), who have become rich beyond their dreams, mourn his death. He leaves behind two highly accomplished sons, and power passes to the older, more sober Mukesh. The younger, flamboyant Anil marries a film star, Tina Munim, a girl with a past. He loves glamour and cultivates powerful politicians, and this does not go down well with the serious, older brother. Mukesh tries to marginalise his brother, but Anil retaliates. Filled with monumental envy for ‘the new king’, he launches an attack on his brother. In the fight, governance failures are revealed for the first time (about the family’s shareholding and the ownership structure of their new telecom venture). The stock plunges and the country watches in fear at the unfolding of an awesome tragedy. Finally, their mother—an anguished, Kunti-like figure caught in the middle—intervenes and splits the kingdom like Dhritarashtra. Three years later, both have prospered beyond their dreams and the value of the empire of each brother is more than double of the undivided kingdom.

The Ambani saga raises troubling moral questions. It is a classic rags-to-riches story—the ascent of a simple village boy who against all odds created a world-class, globally-competitive enterprise that has brought enormous prosperity to millions. But it is also a tale of deceit, bribery and the manipulation of a decaying and corrupt Licence raj. Ambani’s defenders argue that since his enterprises brought so much good to society, what is the harm if he manipulated an evil system and bribed politicians and bureaucrats? The government itself realised it and has been dismantling the system since 1991. But Ambani’s opponents counter, saying that it is never justified to break a law. Ends cannot justify the means. Other defenders believe that the uncertain business world is full of danger and surprise, and a certain amount of deception is necessary for business success.

Anil’s envy of Mukesh is as dangerous as Duryodhana’s. He cannot bear the fact that his brother has far more power and fame than he does. He burns inside each time the media extols Mukesh’s awesome managerial skills. Had the mother not intervened, the rivalry might have hurtled over the top towards a Kurukshetra-like war, which might have destroyed the whole enterprise, and with it the lives of millions of people. The drama is by no means over. In 2009, Mukesh had moved up to being the third-richest person in the world while Anil had slid to being number seven. There continued to be a huge amount of bad blood and dozens of court cases were pending between the two brothers.

But envy had certainly driven Anil to perform to great heights, and the value of the enterprises of each brother was far greater than if they had kept united. Dharma draws a fine line between the positive and negatives sides of competition, and it is easily crossed as we have seen recently in the global financial crisis in 2008. Competition did put great pressure on investment bankers, rating agencies and other players to bend the rules of decent conduct in the market for US housing mortgages. But when they justified their acts as rational behaviour based on the healthy competition, they slipped into the arena of self-deception. To meet the relentless demand of the bottomline and the incentive of a huge but unseemly bonus, many senior executives compromised their character.

The Immorality of Silence

Draupadi’s question (on the dharma of a king) also brought home to me the immorality of silence. Vidura accuses the nobles, kings, and the wise elders—all the less-than-mad-Kauravas—who stand by silently as Draupadi is dragged by her hair before their eyes. When honest persons fail in their duty to speak up, they ‘wound’ dharma, and they ought to be punished according to the sage Kashyapa. In answer to her heart-rending appeal, Bhishma ought to have leaped up and felled Dusshasana to the ground instead of arguing over legal intricacies.

A similar conspiracy of silence diminished the office of the President of India in the summer of 2007. The official candidate for the office was a woman Congress Party leader, Pratibha Patil, against whom there were extensive charges that were widely reported in the press. She had started a cooperative bank in Maharashtra whose licence was cancelled by the Reserve Bank. Her bank had given ‘illegal loans’ to her relatives that exceeded the bank’s share capital. It had also given a loan to her sugar mill which was never repaid. The bank waived these loans, and (it was) this which drove it into liquidation.... Six of the top 10 defaulters in Pratibha Patil’s bank were linked to her relatives.

In July 2007, the nation had a Bhishma-like person of unquestionable integrity in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But he remained largely silent, deferring to his party’s choice of the presidential candidate. In passing, he called it ‘mudslinging’ by the Opposition, and the nation believed him. In any case, the Congress Party had the votes and Pratibha Patil dethroned perhaps the most upright and popular president in Indian history. After that, the charges were never investigated.

Draupadi’s example is an inspiration to free citizens in all democracies. Her question about the dharma of the king should embolden citizens to question the dharma of public officials, especially when they confront the pervasive governance failures around them. These failures are commonplace and they range from sending troops to fight unnecessary wars in places like Iraq or the absence of school-teachers in government schools in India. They test the moral fabric of society. When there is no other recourse, citizens must be prepared to follow the Pandavas and wage a Kurukshetra-like war on the corrupt.

Remorse and Rahul Gandhi

When the Kurukshetra war comes to an end, it becomes clear that the theme of the Mahabharata is not war, but peace. We have been so mesmerised by the heroic and valorous deeds at Kurukshetra, recounted in the battle books of the epic, that it is only during the sorrowful ‘bath of tears’ of the widows of Hastinapur that we begin to confront the other side of war. Yudhishthira is left with a hollow sense of victory....

Revolted by the violence against all human feeling, Yudhishthira becomes a disillusioned pessimist. Yudhishthira expresses remorse and he repents. The irony is that many Indians have a low opinion of him. ‘Dharmaputra Yudhishthira’ is a derogatory epithet. While Arjuna is a brave and valiant warrior, remorseful Yudhishthira is considered weak and indecisive. The contempt for Yudhishthira says something about contemporary society. What we need is more remorse, not less, but it is somehow considered unmanly....

When Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s candidate for prime minister, was assassinated in December 2007, what struck me most was the singular lack of remorse in that country. There was plenty of grief, even some regret, but no remorse. When I raised the question of Pakistan’s lack of remorse in one of my columns, Rahul Gandhi sent me an e-mail, which I think is worth quoting, for he connects remorse with democracy: “Remorse comes when you are able to feel the suffering of fellow human beings to an extent where the suffering becomes your own. To feel deeply human suffering you have to internally accept that all humans are equal and see them as humans and not as a particular group. Once you make this leap, democracy is the only system you can believe in. (India’s) leaders in the freedom struggle were able to look beyond divisions and see the human being (including the British). Because of this, they were able to feel the pain of people. The outcome was democracy and remorse for your fellow human being. Pakistan’s founders (probably as a result of their fears) were unable to see beyond divisions, and hence, the outcome was an unstable, undemocratic remorseless system....”

Rahul Gandhi believes that remorse is more likely to be expressed in democratic societies. But even in democracies it is usually absent. It is extraordinary—there was no remorse among investment bankers on Wall Street after they had tipped the global economy into a recession in 2008. They were not contrite that their actions had resulted in millions of job losses around the world. They still expected bonuses to be paid whether their company had lost or made money. It is as if they felt they had a god-given right to earn more than ordinary human beings. To be fair, a few investment banks, like Goldman Sachs, did show restraint, but the majority behaved like the French aristocracy just before the French Revolution. The Economist, a consistent supporter of the free market, asked, “What will it take for bankers to show a little remorse?”

Yudhishthira and Narendra Modi

Yudhishthira does not pursue the path of retributive justice but of forgiveness. Even though he knows that Dhritarashtra had partly been the cause of war, he does not hold trials of war criminals. He must have realised that punishing his uncle would not have healed the Pandavas’ wounds nor helped to restore political community. He uses the word kshama, ‘forgiveness’, several times, just as he had used it earlier in an attempt to cool down Draupadi’s anger in the forest. Kshama has connotations of forbearance and forgiveness.

While forgiveness suggests a degree of ‘self-righteousness’, forbearance points one in the direction of the classical virtue of magnanimity. The magnanimous person is forward-looking and does not suffer from the ‘victimisation’ complex of the forgiving person. Seventeenth-century painters celebrated Alexander the Great’s magnanimity after defeating courageous Indian king Puru (Porus) of the Punjab. The magnanimity of the victor towards the defeated has also been codified in the Geneva Convention. Yudhishthira’s actions make it easier for the reconstruction of the fractured community of Hastinapura.

Many liberals today, however, would be sceptical of Yudhishthira’s policy of reconciliation. They would argue that reconciliation in a political community comes through political participation, which is supposed to heal relationships and restore communal solidarity. Excessive emphasis on social harmony and communal solidarity might actually compromise the legitimate rights of individuals, such as the right to reparations. Hence, former American secretary of state Madeleine Albright always stressed ‘first justice, then peace’ during the war in Yugoslavia. She believed that retribution had to precede healing, and legal accountability for the past regime’s offences was necessary for restoring communal trust....

The opposite example is South Africa’s oft-quoted success with reconciliation. It shows that the “extension of forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation to whole nations is one of the great innovations in statecraft of our time....”

More recently in India, Professor J.S. Bandukwala asked Muslims to forgive the 2002 killings in Gujarat. Those who presided over the killings were elected to power and their complicity was confirmed on camera by an expose in Tehelka magazine in 2007. But, Prof Bandukwala argued, “Forgiveness will release Muslims from the trauma of the past. It may also touch the conscience of Hindus, since the crimes were committed by a few fanatics in the name of Ram. Most important, it may give Gujarat a chance to close the tragic chapter of 2002 and move on....”

My first reaction to his proposal was: “No, the guilty must be punished.” But after chief minister Narendra Modi was re-elected with a thumping majority, I wondered if it was not a great opportunity for him to make a magnanimous gesture like Yudhishthira in order to heal the state’s wounds and lay to rest the ghosts of 2002. I felt that forgiveness might actually work better than retributive justice. I suggested in one of my columns if it was worth trying Professor Bandukwala’s idea.

I got some hate mail from both sides. Those who believed in legal accountability disagreed with me vehemently, arguing that healing and communal trust would only be restored in Gujarat once the guilty were punished and the victims’ right to reparations fulfilled. The admirers of Modi, on the other hand, were outraged; they felt that it was they who were owed forgiveness for the torching of the train in Godhra. Nevertheless, I followed up my article with a suggestion that the hugely popular chief minister, with a big electoral majority, would gain a great deal of goodwill if he set up a ‘truth and reconciliation commission’ (as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu had done in South Africa) and follow it up with a plan to rehabilitate victims on both sides. This might end a tragic chapter.