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The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma Paperback – 25 Jun 2012
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''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
''The book is a remarkable tour de force that connects an ageless philosophical epic to the travails of contemporary society. This book is for the liberal Hindu who does not want his religion co-opted, for the modern Indian who wants to build a fair and inclusive society and for the global citizen who is rendered asunder by moral absolutism. The dharmic challenges we face every day resonate throughout Gurcharan's book. Reading this book has been an enriching experience!''
--Nandan Nilekani, author of Imagining India
''Through a series of bravura readings of the Mahabharata, Gurcharan Das makes a learned and passionate attempt to inform how the great Indian epic might illuminate our present-day moral dilemmas. Readers will find his analyses of dharma insightful, challenging, and honest--doing full justice to the world's most complex, exciting and honest poem.
This admirable book offers precisely the kind of reflection that the epic itself invites--moral, political and public. It shows why the Mahabharata is a classic: because it is ever timely. This superb book is knowledgeable, passionate, and even courageous. Grounded in a secure knowledge of the narrative, it raises key moral problems--from the doctrine of just war to affirmative action to the nature of suffering--and it makes striking attempts to link these with contemporary discussions and issues, both public and personal.''
--Sheldon Pollock, William B. Ransford Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Columbia University
''The book is a kind of miracle: a deeply sensitive man suddenly decides to leave his usual routines and familiar roles and to spend some years simply reading the Mahabharata and seeing what the ancient epic has to tell him; he engages profoundly with the text, with the bewildering profusion of its messages, its tormented heroes, and the dramatic events it describes; and he then finds the space and the right words for a thoughtful, highly personal, philosophically informed, skeptical, sustained response. Such things happen only rarely in our generation, and we should all be grateful to Gurcharan Das for this gift.''
--David Shulman, Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies, Hebrew University
''This book is a triple treat. It provides a subtle reading of episodes in the Mahabharata. It uses those readings to raise consistently provocative questions about the character of dharma. And it addresses important questions about the character of our ethical lives....It wears its learning lightly, prompting one to think, and hence it is a pleasure and a provocation.''
--Pratap Bhanu Mehta, political scientist and president, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
''This wise, passionate, and illuminating book is one of the best things I've read about the contribution of great literature to ethical thought.''
--Martha Nussbaum, Professor of Philosophy, University of Chicago
''Gurcharan Das' personal search for dharma in the ancient epic uncovers buried signposts to a desirable future polity. The Difficulty of Being Good is a significant Indian contribution to a new, universal Enlightenment that is not Western in origin or character. It is a delight to read a book th --William Dalrymple, The Financial Times
About the Author
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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Why does always bad things happen to good people?
In a society where people get away by doing bad things, why should people still believe in 'Dharma'?
Is a "bad person" never good? Does not the "good" sometimes become bad?
Ultimately what is good and bad? What exactly is our Dharma?
Isn't there a certain degree of good in all evil and a certain degree of evil in all good?
How does one come to terms with the uncertain ethics of the world around us?
Was the great epic called 'Mahabharata' about 'war' or was it about 'peace'?
Is Mahabharata relevant in today's world?
How does one deal with 'moral' dilemmas when along both sides are one's own people?
Should one forgive the wrong doer or take revenge?
Is moral blindness an intracable human condition or can one change it?"
A lot many times we grope hard in the dark for a lot of these answers. There is hardly anyone who at some or the other point in life has not found himself struggling with these moral dilemmas. Through the elaborate analysis of the powerful characters of Mahabharata, the great author tries to find some of these answers.
First, why does a person stray on the wrong path? For Duryodhana, it was envy and the influence of his uncle on him. For his father, it was insecurity. For Ashwathaama, it was revenge. For Karna, it was a search for his identity. Reasons could be many more. The idea is that in life, several things/emotions/circumstances have the power to easily stray one from the right path. In today's world, where a bride is burnt alive, a lot many times, the reason is greed. Bhisma, Drona and many such learned men knew the Kauravas were wrong in what they did to the Indian Queen Draupadi. But their loyalties were not towards what was ethical but towards a throne. A lot many times, we follow the wronged ones just because they are our blood relations; knowing very well that the same will lead to a doom for not just us but them as well in the long run. In times of moral dilemmas, it is easier to weigh the two sides not on who is ethical but on who is closer to us. And that, as the book conveys is disastrous for everyone and not just the victim.
Second, what is one supposed to do when wronged? Does one forgive or does one avenge? Are there are limits of tolerance? Yudhistra resisted war even after losing everything. But his goodness was exploited way too far.
My favourite chapter of the book is 'Draupadi's Courage'. When she is brought to the assembly, her first question is to her husband : 'Whom did you lose first, yourself or me?'
This line has haunted me for days. Clearly, her husband must have lost his conscience first to have staked his wife. For how could he stake the woman he was supposed to protect? What is left of Dharma? For Draupadi, when honest people fail in their duties to speak against wrong, they 'wound' dharma and deserve punishment. If only someone had done that in the assembly, the catastrophic war could have been avoided.
The best part of the book is it does not try to take sides, it does not preach. It only tells us that world is made to be imperfect. And how we can still be good and carve out what we want to become rather than let circumstances define that for us.
Some of the greatest messages/lines of the book are:
- Do good to others but only to the point where goodness does not hurt. Yudhishtra was good but he realized his goodness was being exploited too far and was sending a wrong message. His final decision to go to war was to send the message that goodness should not be exploited too far. Yudhistra's journey from the assembly to the Kurukshetra is insightful.
- Let no man do to another which is repugnant to himself. How would you feel if it was you who was suffering?
- When in a dilemma, choose the right person and not merely the one close to you. Arjuna knows if he fights, he would be killing his own loved ones, gurus, family members. But as Krishna explains to him, it is in such times one's true character is tested. Arjuna needs to fight not for his sake but for the sake of 'Dharma'.
- Dharma is subtle.
- I fear not death as I fear a lie
- Remorse is different from regret. Someone who is remorseful will always reject a consolation of his wrong doings. Most times, when we do wrong to someone, we feel regret but not remorse. We try to find a rational explanation to our wrong doings, blaming it on circumstances/people. Remorse comes when you feel the suffering of fellow human being to an extent, where suffering becomes your own. A person who is truly remorseful only finds ways to make amends and not reasons to forgive himself.
- The process of becoming a good person is an art.
- Each person, no matter who he is needs to deal with the consequences of his actions, his decisions.
- Abandoning someone devoted to you is a bottomless evil. How Yudhistra did not even abandon a stray dog because the dog was loyal to the King finally opened the doors of heaven for him.
- Unexamined life is not worth living.
- What we change internally will change the outer reality.
- There are times when turning the other cheek really sends a wrong signal.
- I act because I must
- Mahabharata is not about war but peace
Good book to build basic concepts of ethics for the popular exam.
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