One Man’s Search for Dharma: Gurcharan Das and The Difficulty of Being Good

Lessons from the Mahabarata for the Modern World

Gurcharan Das addressing the Asia Society in New York on September 30, 2010.
Gurcharan Das addressing the Asia Society in New York on September 30, 2010.

NEW YORK, September 30, 2010 - Gurcharan Das, once the CEO of Proctor & Gamble India and author of the much-acclaimed India Unbound, and Vibhuti Patel, longtime contributing editor at Newsweek International and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, discussed Das' new book The Difficulty of Being Good, subtitled On the Subtle Art of Dharma, which Patel had been "up all night" reading. 

Through the classic Indian epic the Mahabharata, Gurcharan Das takes a critical look at contemporary morality. As Das sees it, the Mahabharata, with the concept of dharma at its core, presents us with a set of ancient stories that are in fact highly applicable to modern-day capitalism and globalization. "Good moral reasoning is behind good moral action." Dharma, as Das explains, is a complex word. It can mean virtue, duty, and law, but it is mostly concerned with doing the right thing. 

Focusing on contemporary India, Das is optimistic about its place in the world but is concerned with what he sees as great failings in its "moral dimension." Looking at Indian society and its recent economic prosperity, one has to ask, what is the cost? Describing the economic and political structures in place today, he identified the major sins of each. Most notably, Das argued that for socialism this is envy, while for capitalism it's greed. He did point out, however, that there is an underlying dharma to capitalism, which is the concept of trust.

In his book, Das provides no prescriptions for the betterment of any individual person. He merely asks what the Mahabharata asks everyone to do: to look at themselves in a mirror, to see where we are good and where we are not. Das poignantly remarked that "an act of goodness is one of the only few things that we have."

While one of the most notable figures influenced by the Mahabharata was Gandhi, Das was keen to provide present-day examples, not only from within India but from the rest of world as well. Reflecting on the American war in Iraq, he speculated, "I bet you no one... said, we are going to kill thousands of people."

Essentially, the author concluded, we want our leaders to consider the moral implications of their decisions. The question of whether or not to conduct war is an intrinsic part of the Mahabharata. Governments and leaders today may decide that going to war is right, but what Das implies isn't that a clear line always exists between right and wrong but that all people should take moral implications into consideration.

Reported by Elizabeth Reynolds