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

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    Available in PDF - DJVU Format | The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma.pdf | Language: ENGLISH
    Gurcharan Das(Author)

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Why should we be good? How should we be good? And how might we more deeply understand the moral and ethical failings-splashed across today's headlines-that have not only destroyed individual lives but caused widespread calamity as well, bringing communities, nations, and indeed the global economy to the brink of collapse?
In The Difficulty of Being Good, Gurcharan Das seeks answers to these questions in an unlikely source: the 2,000 year-old Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata. A sprawling, witty, ironic, and delightful poem, the Mahabharata is obsessed with the elusive notion of dharma-in essence, doing the right thing. When a hero does something wrong in a Greek epic, he wastes little time on self-reflection; when a hero falters in the Mahabharata, the action stops and everyone weighs in with a different and often contradictory take on dharma. Each major character in the epic embodies a significant moral failing or virtue, and their struggles mirror with uncanny precision our own familiar emotions of anxiety, courage, despair, remorse, envy, compassion, vengefulness, and duty. Das explores the Mahabharata from many perspectives and compares the successes and failures of the poem's characters to those of contemporary individuals, many of them highly visible players in the world of economics, business, and politics. In every case, he finds striking parallels that carry lessons for everyone faced with ethical and moral dilemmas in today's complex world.
Written with the flair and seemingly effortless erudition that have made Gurcharan Das a bestselling author around the world-and enlivened by Das's forthright discussion of his own personal search for a more meaningful life-The Difficulty of Being Good shines the light of an ancient poem on the most challenging moral ambiguities of modern life.

''The book is a wonderful combination of the scholarly and the personal, the academic and the meditative. The basic plan works beautifully, building a rich mix of his very, very careful and detailed reading of the text, his other wide reading, and his life in business; an extraordinary blend. I found the use of evolutionary biology and the Prisoner's Dilemma to explain the pragmatism of the Mahabharata absolutely brilliant.'' --Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Professor of the History of Religions, University of Chicago Gurcharan Das is the author of the much-acclaimed India Unbound, which has been translated into many languages and filmed by the BBC. He writes a regular column for six Indian newspapers, including the Times of India, and occasionally for Newsweek, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Affairs. His other books include the novel A Fine Family; a book of essays, The Elephant Paradigm; and an anthology, Three English Plays, consisting of Larins Sahib, 9 Jakhoo Hill, and Mira.

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Book details

  • PDF | 488 pages
  • Gurcharan Das(Author)
  • Penguin; 2009 edition (June 18, 2012)
  • English
  • 5
  • Literature & Fiction

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Review Text

  • By Ravi S. Madapati on July 8, 2010

    "The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living" -- SocratesDoing a review of Mr. Das's extraordinary work "The Difficulty of being Good" is like trying to describe Sistine Chapel to a blind person. Yet, I am going to make a sincere effort in doing this because like Yudhistira says "I must". Since Indian philosophy unfortunately is fused with religion ("Hinduism" is not an organized religion around one book or one person), its hard for people to directly compare Mahabharata to Ancient Greek works of philosophers like Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. Its not taught in school since it has religiousness attached to it. Like Mr. Das himself says, if kids in Italy can read "The Divine Comedy", why cant kids in India learn Mahabharatha? Especially if doing so could make them better human beings? I would like to call Ramayana and Mahabharata, Indian tragedies, much like Greek Tragedies. Both end up causing tremendous agony to the reader by the way they end. But, ironically they both teach the reader about the value of life through tragedy. Both are attributed to two different authors but its likely that these works were authored over centuries with multiple redux versions. Much like the works of Aristophanes and Sophacles, these works are filled with deep human emotion, melodrama, fatalistic suffering and moral dilemmas. In both the epics, all the protagonists end their avatars after completing an odyssey that is filled with great suffering, longing, warring and separation from loved ones. Hence, I think they are much like the Greek tragedies. Now, tragedy is a strange emotion. when projected on external parties, it has the power to cleanse the audiences' emotional state of being and give them a sense of relief grown from utter despair. That's called catharsis. Different people find catharsis though different mediums, some through music, some through artwork and others through writings. I believe this magnum opus of Mr. Das, is his own catharsis.By constantly craving to understand "dharma" and "dharmic religions", by constantly taking out examples from current day world and juxtaposing the same to Mahabharatha's world, he brings a perspective that is awe-inspiring, beautiful as well as pragmatic. By vicariously questioning the existential angst of the human condition and sometimes answering the same through these projections, Mr. Das tells a tale that is filled with anguish, suffering and pessimism yet somehow manages to create a light at the end of a turbulent and dark tunnel.Mahabharata is carved into 18 books. It tells the story of an ancient Indian royal family. The crux of the book (or books) tells the story of warring cousins who both claim a right to their ancestor's kingdom. Who is the legal heir to the throne is actually not a matter of grey. Yudhistira, the eldest of all the cousins (105 in total), is first in line for the succession. But his cousin, Duryodhana, usurps the kingdom through a fraudulent game of dice and sends Yudhistira and his four younger brothers into exile. After returning from a fourteen year exile, Yudhistira requests his share of the kingdom, only to be denied even a single province. This leads to a great war between the two families, in which Yudhistira "wins". This is the basic plot of Mahabharata in a single paragraph. But the epic itself is seven times larger than Iliad and the Odyssey combined. Its the largest literary work ever written by mankind.Mr. Gurcharan Das, educated in philosophy after which he became a senior manager at a world-class company before voluntarily retiring, authored "The Difficulty of being Good" with a deep passion as well as deep detachment. To his credit, he does not treat Krishna as the God while trying to understand the denouements of his actions. I believe this brings a sense of fairness into place. If you are aware of the stories within stories of this epic, you would agree that it becomes very easy to be deterministic if you choose the protagonist to be divine. We can just say, "hey, it was meant to me. this is God's will". But the ensuing suffering is human. So why would God want humans to suffer so as to make a point?Being an Indian himself, the author knew the Mahabharatha inside out (of course he spent years studying the same under scholars at the University of Chicago), but he does not assume his reader to know the same. His erudition shines through across various chapters, in which he relates the dilemmas from the ancient epic to the problems of the modern world. He astutely tackles the complex episodes of this ancient prose with remarkable objectivity. He constantly compares and contrasts Mahabharatha's philosophy to that of the Western world. He writes freely and in an easy to understand compare/contrast format about the teachings of some of the greatest philosophers such as Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, Kant, J. S. Mill and others. Breaking down his work into a few sections, he constantly exposes current issues by contrasting them to the issues in Mahabharatha.Writing on Duryodhana's envy, which in the first place creates all the problems in the epic, he exposes the envy that caused the chasm in Reliance, the largest Indian company. He compares the silence of Bhishma to that of India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, while picking an able person as the next President of India. Had Draupadi been alive in this age, she would have questioned the corrupt Indian bureaucrats about their dharma in delivering basic services to the Indian masses. He questions his own glory-seeking trends when writing about Karna's constant status anxiety. He questions if George Bush Jr. felt the despair of Arjuna before going to war in Iraq. To me, these are astounding comparisons, which never crossed my own mind although they now seem so obvious now. This a mark of a man who is deeply moved by this epic and has keenly observed these characters in a detached way. These are some of the marks of Mr. Das's burning intellect.By comparing Yudhistira's deep remorse after the war to that of Ashoka's, Mr. Das makes a point that maybe this was the work of a different author working during the Budhist times of 400BC. By drawing inferences from the works of Greek philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Sophocles and interspersing those ideas with that of Descartes, Locke, Rawls, Mill and others, Mr. Das creates a rich and complex moral web of life that will keep this book a living embodiment of what the elusive dharma is. If dharma is subtle as Bhishma says, how are we ever supposed to know what it is? If dharma is the right thing to do, who is to define what the right thing is? If Hitler's deplorable acts and heinous crimes were committed in the name of the right thing for him, is dharma personal (to him) or is it universal (for us and the allied forces)?The author gives a superb introduction to the evolution of the word dharma, from Rg Vedic (1500 BC) times till the current day. That's the evolution of this elusive work over an approximate period of 3,500 years. That time-scale starting now in 2010 would end up in the year 5510. I wonder what dharma would come to mean then!I have a lot of takeaways from this book. In a world like we are living in today, its not easy to be a good person. That is how capitalism/democracy has evolved in the last 100 or so years. Capitalism follows the Darwinian dictum that its only the tough who survive. So how could one be tough and good at the same time? Its difficult to be good when an honest man looks at the wealth a corrupt politician and thinks "look what being good gave me". That's what Draupadi asks Yudhistira in the forest, "why are we suffering while that evil Duryodhana is enjoying all the luxuries of the world?". I think what Yudhistira says here is a lesson for all us. He says, "I do this because I must". There is a certain Faustian tragedy attached to all our lives currently, because we just cannot understand the nobility of Yudhistira's words.To be a corporate leaders, they say you have to be tough, make tough choices and kill competition at all costs and so on. Following this sutra, you can argue for and against companies like Microsoft for their conduct over the past decade. Haters can call this company a bully, innovation-killer and so on and so forth and followers can say that MSFT created a lot of shareholder wealth. But in the process was damage done to competitors and others? I am sure it must have, and I am also sure that Microsoft was following exactly what Milton Friedman said all those decades back, "a company's only job is to make money". Point being, if the world was Microsoft's Kurukshektra, it was waging a war, sometimes immoral (like the slaying the Bhisma if you will) and sometimes, moral. Again, its difficult being good and its also challenging to understand what dharma is. To follow a "swadharma" (personal dharma), and still go with these draconian times, seems more logical than following "sadharana dharma" (universal dharma). But, at the same time, its important to constantly know what the right thing to do is, whether its not polluting the environment or not doing immoral activities. Gulf of Mexico is immoral but its because we demand gas that drove BP to deep sea. Doing so, BP delivered shareholder returns pretty well in the past few decades but at what cost? A cost whose negatives are "externalized" and a tragedy whose pathos is "commonized".As we flow like twigs in this water, trying to live a detached yet attached life, we are looking around for meaning to this journey. It was Socrates who said "The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living" and we are all in the throes of examining and defining some meaning to this bio-chemical reaction. The great point the book makes at the end is trying to give more meaning to this existential angst by telling that its compassion that is needed to lead a fulfilling life.When Yudhistira steadfastly refuses to enter heaven if his dog is not allowed into it, that's when we realize that compassion for the world we live and compassion for fellow creatures is actually what makes us human. Yudhistira's observation from his strife-filled life is that dharma is compassion. Its not only about doing that elusive right thing, but also doing it with compassion. "The Difficult of being Good" is a stupendous work and personally it helped me in my quest to understand my own dharma as well as the dharma of these times. This is not a book to be read and recommended, its a book to be referenced for the rest of my life.

  • By Spk on October 10, 2010

    The book `The Difficulty of Doing Good, The Subtle Art of Dharma,' is certainly a book for the times; perhaps a book that will also stand the test of time.However, it is a relief for me to state the above. Please allow me to explain.A suspicion of Time ThievesI got a sudden email from a friend of mine the week before, stating we must go to `this.' The `this' in question was a lecture by Gurucharan Das based on his new book, at Harvard University in Cambridge. I responded expressing interest. But I was not sure how much time I had to make the trip given that it was in the middle of the week, and there was every chance that I might have to travel as well.I was also unsure because I was suspicious. Writers, it seems to me, want to go back and mine the epics time and again. No complaint there. But I worry that they are doing so either as a crutch for their own original critical thinking or worse to borrow from the reputation of the given epic. A different breed of writer, is afflicted with a second curse. And this is especially true for modern writers. And that is the '10-point how to be successful book.' `Leadership Secrets of Atilla the Hun' and other such titles come to mind. And for that, I have no time.The lecture was on a Tuesday early evening. All day at work, I kept my eye on the clock (and gave my friend a 90% probability during the course of the day that I would make it). Mercifully, no work related fire-drills, or a request to dash to NYC popped, and I jumped on the Red Line from the Financial District to Cambridge.August CompanyI found my friend in the auditorium when I got there. It was a rather wet day, so I had to mind my umbrella. I was pleasantly surprised to see the auditorium well populated already. Not so few attending, that I would feel trapped. Not so many that I would feel like I was at a superficial, but popular event.As we were sitting and chatting a distinguished gentleman in gray was striding down the middle stairs and checking out the arrangements in front for the panelists. My friend nudged me and asked, `do you know who that is?` I looked at her askance. She whispered `Professor Sugata Bose.` The name did not mean anything to me other than that it might be of Bengali origin.I soon learned that this was the eminent Historian who deliberated on the role of the Indian Ocean in world History and also the grandson and grand nephew of the most famous of the Indian Freedom fighters.I settled down, set aside any lingering suspicions or misgivings about being there and prepared to don the mask of an attentive listener.I have seen you, but have not heard you beforeThe person of Gurucharan Das who stood in front of us, I have seen several thousand times. A polished corporate speaker. Knows what he is going to say. Says it and not anymore. A few personal references to connect with the audience. Enough self-deprecation and enough humor. Knew how much energy to spend on this lecture and how much to save for the one next day at MIT. Spoke in succinct paragraphs. Said what he was going to say. Said it. And summarized what he said. A corporate speechwriter would have been proud.But what Gurucharan Das said, was unlike any of the corporate speeches I have heard. He spoke with the conviction of a man who had employed all his personal skills, resources, time and energy in asking questions of the great epic, Mahabharata. And the answers he derives from interrogating the text are his own. This was not a speech written by a corporate speechwriter.He laid out a few markers that stood in mind. He talked about how the action in the epic stops all of a sudden and how the characters in the scene discuss it. He discussed how good and bad were all mixed up not just in the characters but in the nature of good and bad itself. He teased out some aspects of the story that those of us who have grown hearing it and reading it might have missed (like Karna's enduring passion for Draupadi). And finally he raised the questions that the epic raises against today's problems; the current wars, the current crisis in governance, and the shocking apathy in the public sphere.The riposte by his two hosts, both professors at Harvard, were scintillating. They drew out aspects of what the author said in genuinely original and authentic ways. However, I had to chuckle to myself. Being the son of a professor myself, I can smell professors and their professorial tendencies a mile away. Take it from me, that when a professor says, "I would like to make one last point," they do not mean it.After PartyMy friend bought a book and got it signed by the author. I demurred. I have my friend, the iPad, and I read books on that. So no paper copies for me, author's signature or otherwise.On the ride back home we chatted about the speech and about the author and recalled various interesting things we had heard.On one point we were agreed. This was no ordinary re-telling of the epic.But how does he write?I shared my experience of the evening with family and friends. My brother wrote back to me that he was a fellow panelist with the author when was touring India in 2000. Several friends reminded me that that author is a regular columnist in the Times of India and other newspapers.It is one thing to speak well. But it is a whole different skill to write. And within even that genre, it takes a particular type of skill to deliver a tangy, provocative news op-ed. And another to sustain an interrogation of a few thousand year old epic. The opinion of the author's news columns, at least in my network of friends and family, was decidedly mixed.But I was intrigued enough by the speech that I decided `to buy' what the author was selling. So with fresh trepidation and anticipation I downloaded the book on the Kindle Application of my iPad.The Difficulty of Being GoodThe cover of the book itself is pleasing. Subtle earth tones and simply laid out without too much commotion. Neither austere nor too loud.One of my favorite books is `The Founding Brothers,' by the historian Joseph Ellis. There he delivers a particular historical scene succinctly. He then goes about setting the context for it, and then finally delivers its meaning and import (and example being the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr).Gurucharn Das' approach is not exactly the same but similar. He runs through the backbone of the epic quickly, so the reader is up to speed on what the story is and who the main characters are. Even for a reader like me who perhaps is familiar with the epic, this was a good refresher. It is written in a `lets get to the point quickly' style, but as a reader you realize that it is a palate cleanser for the complex meals to come ahead.In the author's take on the epic, the central event appears to be the episode of Queen Draupadi's humiliation in the King's court. One would normally assume that this particular scene was a dramatic episode. But that the central scenes were Arjuna's dilemma or even Karna's demise. But what the author is exploring is the question of Dharma. And the central question of Dharma is posed by the humiliated Queen to the assembly of Nobles.This exposition alone is worth the price of the book. The author brings such vitality to the scene. Asks such penetrating questions of the characters assembled. He builds so many layers to the answer. This is a tour de force. A bravura chapter. And he keeps bringing this back again and again throughout the book.The other chapter that stood out for me is the one on Krishna. How was this modern, yet sincere and passionate intellect going to interpret this complex figure. Devotionally? Skeptically? Historically? Pragmatically? Agnostically? The author smartly discusses the character of Krishna in the epic in the context of literary history and succeeds in shedding new light. More importantly, his reading is impartial and he astutely leaves things well alone, contradictions and all.The most important learning for me, among the many was the concept of reciprocal altruism, which the author explains well and uses a device to explain it, that business and economics students are familiar with, namely the Prisoner's Delimma, from Game Theory (The book Thinking Strategically by Avinash Dixit is a terrific example in this genre).Some quibbles for my effortsThere were some aspects of the book that did not work for me. These are more in the nature of quibbles than finding a serious flaw in the work.The author constantly refers to `his dharma-search' throughout the book. That is fine for a preface or the introduction. But to repeatedly see that phrase throughout the book, interfered with my enjoyment of the flow. It seemed like I would be enjoying a challenging point that the author was making, and then I would be distracted by being reminded that this was a part of the author's `dharma search.' This, I did not need to be reminded of constantly.The contemporary examples employed in the book were hit or miss. The example of the bureaucratic response to which color ink to use was hilarious. The multiple references to the story of the Ambani brothers felt like the author was playing to the gallery. References to pre-eminent political figures felt like name dropping.The author brings up evolutionary biology in the passing. There is a lot happening there. There is an entire chapter, essay or even book that is waiting to be written there. It was intriguing that he would make the connection. But the author makes no more than a connection. This to me was the weakest link in the book. But it does not hurt the main thrust of the book in any way. A reader unfamiliar with Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett would be forgiven for going, `huh?!' (A good place to start here is `The Mind's I' by Douglas Hofsdater and Daniel Dennett).Experiencing Gurucharan DasThere was a real reason that I finally did make the trip to Cambridge that evening. That did not have to do with the author per se. But it had to do with me. And with my curiosity.A successful corporate executive, who could have written a `legacy' book to pad the ego, like so many do, takes an academic holiday at the University of Chicago to tussle with the world's foremost Sanksrit Scholars. The chasm from the Corporate Business world to this other world cannot be bridged. It takes a Lewis and Clark type of fearless expedition to get there. And even if one gets there, one can be roasted in the cauldron of academics by the natives. And Wendy Doniger can personally see to that. For the author to earn encomiums from Professors Doniger, Pollock et al is a wondrous achievement. And a role model.So I went that evening to see if such a role model would indeed present himself. Or if I would find feet of clay (in my own judgement).My experience listening to the author and then reading his work gives me a sense of relief. My suspicions have subsided. An intellectually fearless explorer, and a writer of talent has written a fine work.May it be timeless.

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