The Difficulty of Being Good on the Subtle Art of Dharma by Gurcharan Das


Gurcharan Das is one of the few multifaceted public personalities that we know of in current day India. He had an extremely successful career in Corporate India. He is an equally well-read author besides being a regular columnist in periodicals. What is interesting is that he is able to relate different worlds together and draw parallels where most people fail to see even a connection. This aspect of him makes it very interesting for me to read him.

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I have not read his earlier book, though I have owned it since it was released. This book The Difficulty of Being Good is based on his study of Mahabharata during his academic holiday after his retirement from the corporate world. He studied various versions of Mahabharata. As it happens to anyone who reads this text, he identifies with certain characters and with some situations and circumstances. He seems to be most influenced by Yuddhistra, and his commitment to dharma. He more or less sees the epic from his point of view.

Das has also picked up some driving emotions that create this oldest story of mankind. He has picked up emotions like Duryodhana’s envy, Draupadi’s courage, Karna’s status anxiety (having read Mrityunjay I do not agree here), Arjuna’s despair (not sure if this is the right word for Vishaad), Bhishma’s selflessness, Krishna’s guile, Ashwathama’s revenge. His favorite character Yudhistra’s duty and remorse stand out.

He has tried to elaborate the role of these emotions in events in these characters’ lives. These emotions drove them for most of their lives. This makes you stop and think about what is the driving emotion in my life. An important question. If we know the answer, we may be able to predict or at least understand our behavior.

The Difficulty of Being Good on the Subtle Art of Dharma by Gurcharan Das

D also looks at these emotions through the lens of current day understanding of them. He draws parallels from today’s corporate or political world to illustrate the point. He often introspects and looks at how his understanding of dharma at various times in life influenced and defined his choices in life.

Understanding Dharma Through Mahabharat

The author wrote this book while he was trying to understand Dharma through Mahabharata. Probably, that is why he has so much focus on Yudhishtra, who is literally the son of Dharma. He is often referred to as Dharmaraj.

Throughout the book, he says through various characters and stories from the epic that Dharma is subtle or Sookshma. This essentially means that in the world of Dharma, there are no blacks and white. Everything is in context. He also discusses various forms of Dharma, the Sva-Dharma, and the Sadharana dharma.

Dharma that is bestowed upon you as part of being a community is called Sva-Dharma. This can come from being born in a particular family, caste or country. Or, by being a part of any other form of categories in the society. For example, the dharma of a Magistrate is different from that of a Shopkeeper.

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Then there is dharma that comes to you from within. This may have no impact from anything external from you. It is also said to be coming from your Svabhava. Or, something that comes naturally to you like heat comes naturally to fire. The same things can be dharma for one person at a point in time and not so for someone else. Or, for the same person at a different point in time.

Everyone faces times in one’s life when it is very difficult to decide what is the right Dharma? Sometimes your Sva-Dharma and Sadharana Dharma end up being in conflict. And you may have to choose one over the other.

Moral Dilemmas

The book The Difficulty of Being Good talks about moral dilemmas that have no answers. These dilemmas have always existed and would always continue to exist. He looks at the humanity of the characters and subtly points out to basic human nature which has not changed over eras.

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Das also relates to these dilemmas to current day heroes and anti-heroes and the possible dilemmas that they would have faced. He maps them to some character they resemble in Mahabharata. He looks at their behavoir from a primary driving emotion.

The author highlights lots of aspects of Mahabharata. He talks about the history of how the story and characters may have evolved over a period of time, when it was re-written time and again. How it has more questions than answers. The fact that it has no black and white characters is highlighted. How every character has faltered somewhere during the story.

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He also looks at the story post the war, which is where most storytellers stop. I particularly liked the first chapter on Duryodhana and his envy, which can be looked at as both right and wrong depending on who is your protagonist in the story. The analysis of envy as a human driving force is really good. But the analysis of the rest of the emotions and how they drove the characters left me wanting.

Who should read the book?

The Difficulty of Being Good is written with a global audience in mind. Indian readers would find a lot of repetition and retelling of well-known stories. The central story has been told at the beginning, but a part of it is repeated as such in every chapter.

Limitation of writing a book on Mahabharata in English is that it is very difficult to find English equivalents of certain words. The meaning never gets conveyed in totality. However, if you understand basic Hindi and Sanskrit, you would enjoy the absolute words and the poetic flow.

While reading this, I found a resonance with Amartya Sen’s ‘Identity and Violence’. It would have looked at the epic from the identity angle and how it drove the events in the story. Das has looked at the driving emotion of the characters while the same can be looked upon as the driving identity that drove the actions and finally leads to the Great War.

Reading List

There is an amazing reading list at the end of the book The Difficulty of Being Good, which the author has referred to during his course of study. This is going to be my most important take away from the book. As I love to read books written around Mahabharata, which in my belief is a complete book, which encompasses all possible emotions and dilemmas that a human being or position of a human being can face.

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I agree with the author that there are more questions in the epic than the answers. The discussions and arguments after each question only give us the various perspectives on the questions and the potential answers but rarely the absolute answer.

The Difficulty of Being Good is an interesting read if you like Indian history and philosophy. Or if you are searching for answers for some of your dilemmas. It’s a simple reading. But at the same time makes you stop and think about your understanding of your own dharma.

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  1. nice quote but i really like Karan in mahabharat. how he get teaching from parshuram, how he become king from sute putra & his dedication towards friendship & his danvir nature & promise to mother. everything i really dont like Yudhistra.

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  3. Thank you for reviewing these non-mainstreams works. But I humbly disagree with a lot of your analysis/opinions.

    First, I think this book is not a simple read. Its pretty mind blowing. A few friends of mine came over for dinner the other night and looked at this book on my table and said, "ah this is so old and simple, how does it apply now" etc. On the contrary, this work is so deeply profound, it shows itself in facets of my life, professional and personal. I feel Arjuna's despair (that's probably the closest work in English for vishada, a lack of hope), Yudhistirs sense of duty, Karna's status worries and even Duryodhanas envy. In myself and all around me, these feelings pervade. So this is a work of art that needs to be taken seriously and deserves a more well-thought and deeper analysis than the casual review you just did, please no offense, just feedback.

    Bottomline, works like these should not be read like we read fiction or self-help books of sugar coatings. Please dont mind my honesty, just being straight.


  4. I call myself a Mahabharata enthusiast. I have 17-18 versions of Mahabharata. I heard about this book but I am still trying to understand the perspective through reviews. I hate picking up a bad book.

  5. I just received this book after waiting period of 6 months from my office’s library.

    And after reading your review, I have already started thinking that what actually is driving emotions in my life. It seems like a very thought provoking type of novel which will make you think and introspect.

    Thanks for sharing this.



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