27th March 2010
The Difficult of Being Good, by Gurcharan Das
On my recent trip to India I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase about 15 books, including The Difficult of Being Good by Gurcharan Das. I don't think I'm going to have the time to write reviews on all these books, but perhaps I could write briefly on a few (I've already written on some of these books in the Freedom Team of India's March magazine (click here).
A recurring stomach sickness, brought along from from the India trip, gave me the time off to finish Gurcharan's book yesterday. So here are some preliminary thoughts. I propose to read this book in more detail in future, so I might update this post at that stage.
Overall recommendation: Excellent book. Well worth a read. Beautifully written. I find Naipaul's writings difficult and boring to read. I haven't finished even one of his books yet. But all four books of Gurcharan that I've read so far are a breeze (the others are: A Fine Family, India Unbound' and The Elephant Paradigm). Start to finish in one go. Fantastic writer. In my view a far more deserving candidate for a Nobel prize in literature than many boring writers who've been awarded such a prize. At the least I hope Gurcharan Das is awarded an honorary doctorate by Harvard or some other top university for the outstanding research skills he brings to bear on this book.
Strong points: Coverage of a wide range of issues in the philosophical context of the Mahabharata. It is good to be able to learn so much from such a short book (only 300 pages excluding the prelude and closing notes).
Weak points: In a book that is so wide-ranging and ambitious in scope, there would naturally be areas where others would have different views. These are not weak points, essentially, and don't detract from the book, but worth noting that some interpretations and generalisations can be disputed. I touch upon two of these here:
a) I notice excessive referencing of John Rawls. Now, Rawls was a philosopher who gave significant importance to envy in the creation of a political society. I therefore argue in my draft manuscript, 'The Discovery of Freedom' (DOF), that "A Theory of Justice is, at its heart, a rationalisation for economic distribution. Rawls can perhaps be thought of as a latter day Marx" with his inordinate emphasis on economic redistribution and dilution, almost destruction, of property rights.
Rawls makes 'self-respect', not freedom, the primary human value. Rawls has suggested that a society must ensure that ‘our person and deeds [are] appreciated and confirmed by others who are likewise esteemed and their association enjoyed.’ In DOF I argue that "The society’s recognition of our worth is a piffling matter. The free man with his fierce pride in himself and sense of dignity cares not for what others may think about him. The free man, unlike collectivist intellectuals it would seem, is not a whimpering puppy seeking a rub of his back from every passerby."
It would be hard for Gurcharan Das to make claims that he is a "libertarian" (he does so in this book) if he doesn't get away from his continuing fascination with Rawls. In DOF I have also shown the many failures of Rawls's 'difference principle'. I don't see why Rawls should figure in this book at the expense of far superior philosophers like Immanuel Kant and F.A.Hayek, among others. I'd therefore suggest that Gurcharan examine Rawls far more critically. To begin with, Gurcharan may consider reading Chapter 3 of my manuscript, DOF.
2) There are a other issues I could take with this book as well. Chief of these other issues is the idea of referencing Rahul Gandhi's views! It was a shock (bolt from the blue) to find Rahul's views cited in a book where morality is being discussed. Would Gurcharan please spend some time explaining to us the moral basis of Rahul's actions? I have referred to the severe immorality found in India in my article in the FTI magazine (once again, linked here), and have questioned the value of even remotely considering the views of the corrupt leaders of India. These people have destroyed India's potential. What moral lessons can we hope to get from people like Rahul who are part of India's most corrupt organisation, the Congress party? Please let us not start citing India's most corrupt people in a book of moral philosophy! There's got to be a minimum moral standard in life. Spare us the "writings" of the enemies of India! We need to have the self-respect to dissociate ourselves clearly and unequivocally from criminals.
SUMMARY OF THE BOOK
The book is an extensive and well-thought out review of the Mahabharata, a story that I learnt on the lap of my grandfather in Jagadhri when I was around 4-6 years old (see my grandfather's photo here) .
But that was a long time ago. I never found time later to follow up on that tale. Despite a copy of Rajaji's Mahabharata sitting on my bookshelf for many years now, I've avoided reading the story or thinking much about it. I generally don't read fiction, and I have treated Mahabharata as fiction, to be read only when one has a lot of time on one's hand. Some snippets I have definitely read in various contexts, such as my philosophical readings and writings. And of course, I've skimmed through the Gita on a few occasions.
Gurcharan Das has (quite strongly!) kindled my interest in the Mahabharata. In all my readings on philosophy I never thought of analysing Mahabharata as a book of moral and political philosophy. Indeed, Gurcharan's work has perhaps given the Mahabharata a new lease of life across the world. It will surely be more widely read in the context of its moral philosophy, thus enhancing its international stature. Indeed, I suspect Gurcharan's book would become a key reader for that purpose. A must read. Gurcharan's is clearly a great contribution to the human search for meaning in life.
I'm primarily interested in free will and freedom, of course, and it was gratifying to note that Krishna, after his discourse to Arjun, finally left the decision to Arjun, thus:
The knowledge I have taught …
consider it completely
then act as you choose. (p. 99 of the book)
This is perhaps the MOST significant contribution of the Mahabharata to moral philosophy. Gurcharan picks up on this, but perhaps fails to fully appreciate its import. This needs further exploration. For many years now I have been trying to find something, ANYTHING, in ancient Hindu scriptures that would show me that there was at least some encouragement given to freedom of choice and independent thought.
The fact that the Indian agnostics, 2500 years ago, were well ahead of most modern thinkers, has become clear to me from a (sketchy) reading of Indian literature. The fact that pre-Buddhist thinkers influenced Greek thought and led to the sophistry which finally led to Socrates has also become clear to me now (see this blog post of mine).
But that there was at least some freedom of thought in Hindu scriptures was
simply not obvious to me from all my readings so far! This is a positive lead in that direction. Did the Hindu god (Krishna) actually want people to choose their moral position and to think independently? (For I've read elsewhere that all aspects of the Hindu’s life are prescribed in the sastras, leaving little scope for the creation of new knowledge).
And yet this lead is perhaps not conclusive. As I note in DOF, the Mahabharata (Anusasana Parva, Section CLXII) decries reason: ‘That knowledge, O king, which is derived from reason (or inferences), can scarcely be said to be knowledge. Such knowledge should be rejected. It should be noted that it is not defined or comprehended by the word. It should, therefore, be rejected!'
I've also shown in my draft manuscript that satyameva jayate ('the truth triumphs') was actually not intended in the Upanishads the way it is commonly interpreted in India.
So what is it in Hindu scriptures that encourages anyone to critical thinking? Nothing! Or very little! But I stand to be corrected should new information (not known to me yet) be found.
Gurcharan advocates that the Mahabharata be taught as a literary text in schools (in his last chapter, p.301). That raises the question: is the Mahabharata purely a religious book? My father's view (see his book on Vedic metaphysics here) is that the message of the Gita is a summary of the Vedas, and that the Mahabharata was written with a view to communicating the key messages of the Vedas to the laity. A religious book, surely. Just like teaching the Bible as a book of literature in schools. Questionable.
In any event, the lessons from Mahabharata that Gurcharan draws out are in the realm of advanced university courses in philosophy. The subtlety of morality is not something that school children can determine merely by reading the story of Mahabharata. For them I'd prefer teaching simple rules like the Golden Rule (which the Mahabharata also advocates: "One should never do to another what one regards as injurious to oneself") and the categorical imperative.
By all means let's all read and mull over the Mahabharata.
But can Indians please TAKE INDIA FROM BEING ONE OF THE WORLD'S MOST IMMORAL and CORRUPT COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD into something that even closely resembles an ethical society? I am severely disappointed at India's governance system which is rooted in total corruption.
In this situation, the need of the hour is ACTION. At p. 58 of his book, Gurcharan Das writes, "When there is no other recourse, citizens must be prepared to follow the Pandavas and wage a Kurukshetra-like war on the corrupt."
I'd like to see some serious action from Gurcharan Das on the lines that Gandhi took up. No point preaching. There needs to be direct action or public support for action that will lead India to an ethical outcome (e.g. the work of organisations like the Freedom Team of India).
The time for sweet talk about India's contributions to subtle moral philosophy is over. Ethics needs to move from the ivory tower to the street. The time for action has come.
SILENCE IN THE FACE OF DRAUPADI HARAN IS SURELY THE BIGGEST SIN OF ALL. LET ALL INDIANS REMEMBER THAT KEY LESSON.