Sunday, January 9, 2011

Difficulty of Being Good

The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma
The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma (Kindle Edition) (my review on, all my reviews on

Ambitious work that mostly works. I would however have preferred crisper editing and a more cohesive narrative.

This very ambitious work by Gurcharan Das seeks to bring the subtleties and ambiguities and conflicts in the Mahabharata and its characters into the modern world, and shed some light on what it takes to be good, and why that can be so difficult. Why did Duryodhana suffer from envy? Why did Karna suffer from status anxiety? Why was Arjuna in a dilemma before the war? What about Bheeshma, or Yudhishtra? What about the terrible revenge extracted by Ashwatthama at the end of 18-day war? The emotions experienced by the characters in the Mahabharata are human emotions. What they experienced thousands of years ago are what we experience today.This book works for the most part. However, crisper editing would have benefited the book. It feels a bit loose. The other crib is the author's insistence of trying to find parallels with Greek works.

It is evident, from a reading of the book as well as from the bibliography, that the author has done a commendable and copious amount of research into this great Indian epic. Between taking Sanskrit classes afresh, to reading dozens of translations of the Mahabharata, the Gita, the Greek opuses, and works on philosophy, the author is well armed to study and illuminate this epic anew with his insights. For the most part the book flows well and is quite a good read.

Different aspects of the epic and their bearing on a human's duty, dharma, actions, and so on are discussed in chapters named thus:
  • Duryodhana's Envy - by far the most common emotion.
  • Draupadi's Courage - in asking the elders of the Kuru gathering what dharma was. Was it right for a man who had lost himself to have then wagered his wife?
  • Yudhishtra's Duty - in his steadfastness in accepting the wages of an unfair game of dice, thirteen years of exile.
  • Arjuna's Despair - on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, faced with the now given situation where he has to fight and kill his relatives, his grand uncle, his guru, his cousins.
  • Bhishma's Selflessness -
  • Karna's Status Anxiety - on wanting to being accepted as a Kshatriya, a warrior.
  • Krishna'a Guile - on the battlefield of Kurukshetra in securing for the Pandavas a victory. Whether dharma was followed or not, whether rules of war were observed or not (most certainly not).
  • Ashwatthama'a Revenge - after Drona was killed as a consequence of a lie that Yudhishtra utters, Ashwatthama, Drona's son, wreaks a terrible revenge on the Panadavas.
  • Yudhishtra's Remorse - at the end of the war, on seeing the victory as a hollow victory.

The author also shares in his own anxiety when he had to face when people around him got wind of his project, "... my plan to spend the next few years reading the Mahabharata..."
I admitted reluctantly that I had been thinking of reading the Mahabharata, the Manusmriti, the Kathopanishad perhaps, and ...
'Good Lord, man!', he exclaimed. 'You haven't turned saffron, have you?'
The remark upset me. Saffron, is, of course, the color of Hindu right-wing nationalism, and I wondered what sort of secularism it is that regards the reading of Sanskrit texts as a political act. I was disturbed that I had to fear the intolerance of my 'secular' friends as much as the bigotry of the Hindu Right... [page xxxv]
At the end, this is a good book, but only one of several books I would want to read to better appreciate and understand the Mahabharata, the greatest of epics, the timeless source of unfathomable wisdom on duty, on life, and on dharma.

© 2010, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.