Monday, August 12, 2013

Gurcharan Das's "The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle of Art of Dharma"

Gurcharan Das's book "The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle of Art of Dharma" subjects The Mahabharata to rational scrutiny. Facing a middle-life crisis in his illustrious career, Das embarked on the spiritual journey of seeking answers to questions that life poses to everyone. He took the age-old Mahabharata for getting some clues to his questions, but "Mahabharata raises more questions than providing answers." Bhishma cannot answer Draupadi's questions regarding dharma (something between morality, inherent nature and law) at the dice-game because dharma is so subtle that it escapes easy answers. It is the beauty of our time-honored religious and philosophical tradition that we are to question things as they appear and not lazily submit to them. We have to use our "viveka" while appraising even the gods. The gods or God and sons of gods as portrayed in the epic are not paragons of virtue; rather they have inherent flaws to their character which they exploit to bringing the result they favor.
Das goes into details of the lives of each major character of the epic and analyzes their traits. He seems to be fascinated with Yudhisthira, who tries to be good despite adverse situations that he has to constantly face in his life and has to endure barbed comments by his friends and foes alike for his ideal acts. Das's strength lies in his simplicity in telling things and I really liked his down-to-earth approach in writing philosophy. It is free from high-sounding jargons and opaque ideas which some pseudo-scholars love to employ in their writing. Moreover, he provides relevant examples from contemporary India and the world to drive his point home. He brings insights from Western philosophers while making a point in his logic.

However, I also find Das guilty of careless interpretations in the book. In the preface, he has interpreted chakra vyuha as lotus like formation whereas that is what Padma vyuha denotes. I am not convinced with the very first sentence of the book which claims, "The Mahabharata is the story of a futile and terrible war." He has not substantiated the claim by explaining why the war was futile. The Pandavas were trying to regain their lost territory of Indraprastha and Duryodhana turned deaf ear to their peace proposals. There was no recourse left and they had to gain independence from Kaurava tyranny. If this war is futile, one could also claim that any war for independence is futile. Moreover, it seems Das has inadvertently praised Duryodhana and Shakuni and seems to have overlooked these evil characters' misdeeds. Das demands altruistic feelings from Bhima in a hypothetical case of treading upon Duryodhana's gouty toe. This sympathy for Duryodhana is unwarranted at this point. Duryodhana has some good aspects to his character but his oveall bearing is bad and it was his bad company that inspired even lofty Karna to hurl insults against helpless Draupadi. I espouse Das's method of rationally interpreting an ancient text but feel that he has gone too far in some cases.

Nonetheless, a commendable effort.  

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