If US President Barack Obama had listened to Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandavas in Mahabharata, he would not have behaved the way he did when he had to deal with the greed and indiscretion of America’s top investment bankers.
Obama had sought a legal way to claw back the bonuses these executives had showered themselves with even as the institutions they headed were going bust. But this is not what Obama should have asked for, argues Gurcharan Das in this book. “To want to punish someone in this crisis was understandable but it was a dangerous path. What the world needed instead was the calm and principled voice of a Yudhishthira. In Obama’s place he would have appealed for a ‘voluntary’ return of bonuses while explaining to the American people that Wall Street had been bailed out to save Main Street’s pain and honouring bonus contracts was necessary to the rule of law,” he explains.
If you conclude from this explanation that Dharma is to remain calm, follow principles and honour the rule of law, Das will accuse you of over-simplifying Dharma. Dharma, according to the author, is not an easily definable trait. He uses Mahabharata (an epic that claims “what is here is found elsewhere and what is not here is nowhere”), its protagonists and the various turns and twists in their lives to seek the meaning of Dharma. He quotes Bhishma, the man whose vow to remain a celibate and not to stake claim to the throne of Hastinapur could well have been the genesis of all that happened in Mahabharata, to say Dharma is “subtle”. At another point, he says Dharma is so subtle that “it is often difficult to tell right from wrong.”
In essence, the book is Gurcharan Das’ quest for the true meaning of Dharma, as expounded in Mahabharata. What started as an academic holiday became a full-fledged exercise at understanding the significance of the moves and counter-moves made by the different characters in this great epic, originally written in Sanskrit. There are occasions in this exercise where Das starts identifying his own journey in life with that of Yudhishthira.
If Das had limited his attempt at only narrating the great story of Mahabharata, with the help of the knowledge of Sanskrit that he acquired during his academic holiday, the outcome perhaps would have been more satisfying for readers, as the author is a competent story-teller. But confusion reigns when he gets into defining and redefining complex concepts and that too with the help of contemporary events.
As a result, Das wrestles with the idea of Nishkama Karma Yoga (roughly translated, it means action without any expectations from its outcome) by referring to Dhirubhai Ambani, who was described as a Nishkama Karma Yogi by his younger son while he was battling with his brother for a share in the business the father had left behind. Das also talks about Sonia Gandhi, who in a selfless act renounced the job of leading the government after the elections in 2004. Was Dhirubhai Ambani a Karmayogi? And Sonia Gandhi? You are left no wiser after the various arguments put forward by Das.
He opines that Krishna sought recourse to deceit in urging Bhima to attack Duryodhana’s legs, for which the latter was not prepared and in any case such attacks were forbidden. What he does not mention is that just before his fight began, Duryodhana had acquired special powers from his mother to protect himself against Bhima. Krishna used this information to great effect to help the Pandavas. In reality, all the “deceitful” acts of Krishna were essentially aimed at undoing the effects of special divine powers the Kauravas had acquired in their battle against the Pandavas.
So, Krishna, as Das has argued in a different context, was using “evil” to fight “evil”. The question is: Was that really evil and whether it was not Dharma? Debating the relevance or irrelevance of Dharma in such a battle indeed became a little meaningless. There is little doubt that Mahabharata as an epic raises intricate issues pertaining to the relevance of human action in a given role and in the context of pre-ordained fate. The debate over Dharma is also relevant. But Das would have done better if he had narrated the story of Mahabharata in all its details, instead of grappling with the ideas of Dharma or Nishkama Karma Yoga.
THE DIFFICULTY OF BEING GOOD
ON THE SUBTLE ART OF DHARMA
Allen Lane, Penguin Books.
434 pages; Rs 699