Book Synopsis: The Difficulty of Being Good by Gurcharan Das

the-difficulty-ofbeinggood“What is here is found elsewhere. What is not here is nowhere.” – Mahabharata

With these words from the epic, Gurcharan Das starts the prelude to his book “The Difficulty of Being Good”, which I had the opportunity to read over the past few days. An output from what he terms as his ‘academic holiday’, this fairly scholarly piece of work by the former CEO of Procter and Gamble and columnist, is a thorough and in-depth examination into the main characters in the Mahabharata, their stories and their moral dilemmas, their relevance and application in today’s day and age, a search for the meaning of dharma, and the eventual conclusion that ‘Dharma is Subtle’.

The book is fairly heavy reading even for regular readers of non-fiction, but is worth the effort. It has loads of wisdom on every page, and content that will take time for even the most patient readers to absorb. Not exactly following the story line of the Mahabharata, the book takes one character at a time and analyzes the major events that happen with the character, and then tries to answer the age-old question “What is dharma?” In the process, it provides the reader a wonderful insight into the human traits of the key characters.

The author argues that while envy drives Duryodhana and he is largely an ‘evil’ character; for someone who is convinced that the throne belongs to him and whose goal is to win, Duryodhana’s singular drive and endless discontent may be something that one can learn from.

In his analysis of the ‘pravritti-oriented’ Draupadi and her courage, there are some really interesting insights from her conversations with the ‘nivritti-oriented’ Yudhishthira on ‘Why be Good?’ and the various explanations for it. A significant part of the book also focuses on the ‘un-hero’ Yudhishthira and his search for ‘dharma’, and how he undergoes a transformation from being a passive, non-violent, strictly moral prince to a more pragmatic, active and balanced righteous king, on realising the inherent conflicts between being a ruler and being good.

While noting that Bheeshma is perhaps the most ideal character in the Mahabharata and that his striking trait is selflessness, the author also questions whether selflessness is always good, especially if, like in Bheeshma’s case, it actually led to the Mahabharata. If his pledge were not taken, perhaps things would have been smooth with Bheeshma taking the throne.

The author also goes on to explain the status anxiety faced by Karna, its relevance in today’s society, and why he is the ‘most lamented’ character in the epic; as well as the despair faced by Arjuna when he refused to take arms. The author finally takes a detailed look at Krishna and his guile and how it was singularly responsible for the Pandava victory, specially due to its use in the death of all the Kaurava commanders-in-chief – namely Bheeshma, Drona, Karna and Duryodhana. He analyses the character of Krishna both as a human and as God, and eventually concludes that the only justification for his actions is that He is God.

All through the book the author constantly provides contemporary parallels to the epic’s events, and tries to answer the question on whether it is possible to be good and still achieve your goals, and why it is so difficult. These examples range from personal dilemmas in day to day life, positions that corporates and administrators are likely to find themselves in, decisions regarding law and policy makers as well as international issues.

Eventually the conclusion is a highly profound piece of writing some of which I quote below:

“Good behaviour is not rewarded generously in the epic; the virtuous suffer banishment and deprivation, while the wicked flourish in their palaces. Nor does the epic seem to explain why ‘good’ persons, who had a strong and persuasive case to make war, could win only by unfair means? And if so, how can we still call them ‘good’? It has told us that dharma is hidden in a cave, but even if it is found, it is so subtle that it slips from our grasp.”

“There is no single definition of dharma, it is matter of a fine balance  and dharma is subtle. Dharma is supposed to uphold a certain cosmic balance and it is expected to help us balance the plural ends of life – desire, material well being and righteousness – when they come into conflict. However, dharma does not do a very good job at it.”

Overall, a wonderful read, if one has the inclination and patience to absorb it.

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2 Responses to Book Synopsis: The Difficulty of Being Good by Gurcharan Das

  1. Viraja says:

    That was a very concise yet effective review. Now even more inclined towards reading the book.

  2. Amit Agarwal says:

    In this world of Kaliyuga,the author shows and asks us through the Mahabharata that what is dhrma nad why be good.The research and content are very good.Some words and lines just strike the heart of thought.That is a rare thing today.Hats off to Gurucharan Das for showing the new India what it has forgotten.

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