Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Difficulty of Being Good

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Book Review

Title: The Difficulty of Being Good
Author: Gurcharan Das
Publisher: Penguin India, 2012

The Mahabharata is an epic that can be interpreted in numerous ways.  As Gurcharan Das says, “It is a cosmic allegory of the eternal struggle between good and evil on one plane.  At another level, it is about an all-too-human fight between the cousins of a royal family, which leads to a war and ends tragically in the death of almost everyone.  At a third level – and this is primarily the subject of my book – it is about the crisis of conscience of some of its characters.”

Das spent six years studying the epic, having taken an “academic holiday” from his successful career as a writer.  Before turning to fulltime writing, Das worked with multinational companies.  The prevalence of evil in the world of human beings set Das on a kind of spiritual quest.  The Difficulty of Being Good was the outcome. 

The book is an intellectual, spiritual, moral, philosophical and psychological exploration of one of India’s greatest epics.  It deserves to be read by anyone who wishes to understand the Mahabharata from a very wide perspective.  Anyone who is put off by the burgeoning darkness of evil in the world should read this book. 

It does not provide any solution to the problem of evil.  There isn’t any solution.  But we can learn how to deal with evil and keep ourselves good.  Quoting Machiavelli Das says, “a man who wishes to profess goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not so good.”  When the patriarch Bhishma said that dharma was subtle, he meant little else. 

The Mahabharata shows how difficult it is to be good in a world of ‘bad’ people.  Yudhishthira tried his best to cling on to what he perceived as his dharma but failed to avoid the war and all the killings.  Yudhishthira’s dharma was based on benevolence, compassion and generosity.  Krishna, an avatar of God Vishnu himself, used many devious strategies and deceptions in order to defeat the Kauravas.  Even God would find it difficult to be good in the world of human affairs. 

What is our duty then?  That’s what Das’s book tries to answer.  It succeeds in providing a convincing answer too.  It is worth reading the book whether one is religious or not.  The insights provided in the book are not based on any particular religion.  Das brings in a whole spectrum of knowledge ranging from classic literature to contemporary economic views, from philosophy to psychology.   The best thing about it is its lucidity in spite of the profundity.

The books shows how religious literature should be read and interpreted.  That one reason alone should be enough for one to read it.  


  1. From your review, it seems that it is a must read for me. Thanks for sharing.

    Well... as far as I understand Mahabharata, there isn't any distinguish between good and bad, Both are miseries in context of human beings. It deals with Transcendence - Rising beyond Good & Bad.

    1. It is the transcendence that Das is driving at, Ravish. You will love the book for that reason. But transcendence has to be pragmatic too for the ordinary mortals. And Das manages to be practical. The reason is that he was on a genuine quest. That's why I recommend the book.


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