The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma

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Why should we be good? How should we be good? And how might we more deeply understand the moral and ethical failings—splashed across today's headlines—that have not only destroyed individual lives but caused widespread calamity as well, bringing communities, nations, and indeed the global economy to the brink of collapse?
In The Difficulty of Being Good, Gurcharan Das seeks answers to these questions in an unlikely source: the 2,000 year-old Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata. A ...

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The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma

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Why should we be good? How should we be good? And how might we more deeply understand the moral and ethical failings—splashed across today's headlines—that have not only destroyed individual lives but caused widespread calamity as well, bringing communities, nations, and indeed the global economy to the brink of collapse?
In The Difficulty of Being Good, Gurcharan Das seeks answers to these questions in an unlikely source: the 2,000 year-old Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata. A sprawling, witty, ironic, and delightful poem, the Mahabharata is obsessed with the elusive notion of dharma—in essence, doing the right thing. When a hero does something wrong in a Greek epic, he wastes little time on self-reflection; when a hero falters in the Mahabharata, the action stops and everyone weighs in with a different and often contradictory take on dharma. Each major character in the epic embodies a significant moral failing or virtue, and their struggles mirror with uncanny precision our own familiar emotions of anxiety, courage, despair, remorse, envy, compassion, vengefulness, and duty. Das explores the Mahabharata from many perspectives and compares the successes and failures of the poem's characters to those of contemporary individuals, many of them highly visible players in the world of economics, business, and politics. In every case, he finds striking parallels that carry lessons for everyone faced with ethical and moral dilemmas in today's complex world.
Written with the flair and seemingly effortless erudition that have made Gurcharan Das a bestselling author around the world—and enlivened by Das's forthright discussion of his own personal search for a more meaningful life—The Difficulty of Being Good shines the light of an ancient poem on the most challenging moral ambiguities of modern life.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
''The book is a wonderful combination of the scholarly and the personal, the academic and the meditative. The basic plan works beautifully, building a rich mix of his very, very careful and detailed reading of the text, his other wide reading, and his life in business; an extraordinary blend. I found the use of evolutionary biology and the Prisoner's Dilemma to explain the pragmatism of the Mahabharata absolutely brilliant.''
—Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Professor of the History of Religions, University of Chicago

''The book is a remarkable tour de force that connects an ageless philosophical epic to the travails of contemporary society. This book is for the liberal Hindu who does not want his religion co-opted, for the modern Indian who wants to build a fair and inclusive society and for the global citizen who is rendered asunder by moral absolutism. The dharmic challenges we face every day resonate throughout Gurcharan's book. Reading this book has been an enriching experience!''
—Nandan Nilekani, author of Imagining India

''Through a series of bravura readings of the Mahabharata, Gurcharan Das makes a learned and passionate attempt to inform how the great Indian epic might illuminate our present-day moral dilemmas. Readers will find his analyses of dharma insightful, challenging, and honest—doing full justice to the world's most complex, exciting and honest poem.

This admirable book offers precisely the kind of reflection that the epic itself invites—moral, political and public. It shows why the Mahabharata is a classic: because it is ever timely. This superb book is knowledgeable, passionate, and even courageous. Grounded in a secure knowledge of the narrative, it raises key moral problems—from the doctrine of just war to affirmative action to the nature of suffering—and it makes striking attempts to link these with contemporary discussions and issues, both public and personal.''
—Sheldon Pollock, William B. Ransford Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Columbia University

''The book is a kind of miracle: a deeply sensitive man suddenly decides to leave his usual routines and familiar roles and to spend some years simply reading the Mahabharata and seeing what the ancient epic has to tell him; he engages profoundly with the text, with the bewildering profusion of its messages, its tormented heroes, and the dramatic events it describes; and he then finds the space and the right words for a thoughtful, highly personal, philosophically informed, skeptical, sustained response. Such things happen only rarely in our generation, and we should all be grateful to Gurcharan Das for this gift.''
—David Shulman, Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies, Hebrew University

''This book is a triple treat. It provides a subtle reading of episodes in the Mahabharata. It uses those readings to raise consistently provocative questions about the character of dharma. And it addresses important questions about the character of our ethical lives....It wears its learning lightly, prompting one to think, and hence it is a pleasure and a provocation.''
—Pratap Bhanu Mehta, political scientist and president, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

''This wise, passionate, and illuminating book is one of the best things I've read about the contribution of great literature to ethical thought.''
—Martha Nussbaum, Professor of Philosophy, University of Chicago

''Gurcharan Das' personal search for dharma in the ancient epic uncovers buried signposts to a desirable future polity. The Difficulty of Being Good is a significant Indian contribution to a new, universal Enlightenment that is not Western in origin or character. It is a delight to read a book that wears its learning so elegantly and presents its arguments with such panache.''
—Sudhir Kakar, author and psychoanalyst

''It took me on a huge intellectual and emotional journey. And with Gurcharan Das as guide, even familiar paths seemed to lead through fresh landscapes....The secular humanism and intellectual humility that shines through this beautiful book shows that—along with everything else—the Mahabharata can provide just what the modern world needs. Das' rehabilitation of Yudhishthira is inspiring...showing convincingly that [others] misunderstand his role. I came away feeling more whole.''
—Dr. Ian Proudfoot, Sanskrit scholar, Australian National University

"The Difficulty of Being Good represents an attempt by Das to bring together the two sides of his life, the literary and the practical. The result is a highly personal and idiosyncratic, yet richly insightful meditation on the application of ancient philosophy to issues of modern moral conduct and right and wrong."—William Dalrymple, The Financial Times

Library Journal
Das (India Unbound) retired early from his top position at Procter & Gamble Worldwide to become something of an Indian public intellectual, writing regular columns for the Times of India and other newspapers. By 2002, however, distressed by the ubiquitous corruption infecting India's public and private sectors, he decided to spend two years on "academic holiday" at the University of Chicago, working with Sanskrit scholars and the impressive South Asian collection "to recover a meaningful ideal of civic virtue from [one of] India's foundational texts…," the Mahabharata, which contains the perhaps better-known Bhagavad Gita. Now, Das gives us this highly readable exploration of the classic text's abundant moral contradictions. Das frequently taps the wisdom of Western thinkers such as Plato, Freud, Nietzsche, Adam Smith, and Aristotle, making the Indian classic somewhat more familiar. VERDICT With a superb bibliographic essay, this is highly recommended to all seekers of wisdom and especially to students of Indian philosophy.—James R. Kuhlman, Univ. of North Carolina at Asheville Lib.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199754410
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 10/1/2010
  • Pages: 488
  • Sales rank: 629,154
  • Product dimensions: 9.50 (w) x 11.28 (h) x 1.24 (d)

Meet the Author

Gurcharan Das is the author of the much-acclaimed India Unbound, which has been translated into many languages and filmed by the BBC. He writes a regular column for six Indian newspapers, including the Times of India, and occasionally for Newsweek, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Affairs. His other books include the novel A Fine Family; a book of essays, The Elephant Paradigm; and an anthology, Three English Plays, consisting of Larins Sahib, 9 Jakhoo Hill, and Mira.

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Table of Contents

Prelude: I Take an Academic Holiday
1. Duryodhana's Envy: ''What man of mettle will stand to see his rivals prosper and himself decline''
2. Draupadi's Courage: ''Who did you lose first, yourself or me?''
3. Yudhisthira's Duty: ''I act because I must''
4. Arjuna's Despair: ''There are no victors in war''
5. Bhishma's Selflessness: ''Be intent on the act, not its fruits''
6. Karna's Status Anxiety: ''How could a doe give birth to this tiger?''
7. Krishna's Guile: ''That is the way it is!''
8. Aswatthama's Revenge: ''Now I feel the whirligig of time''
9. Yudhisthira's Remorse: ''This victory looks more like defeat to me''
10: Mahabharata's Dharma: ''Great king, you weep with all creatures''
Conclusion: The Difficulty of Being Good
Appendix: Dharma, the Story of a Word
A Short Bibliographic Essay

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2013


    Gurucharan Das does a great job of bringing a sacred religious work into modern context. A highly worthwhile read whatever your faith may be. He essentially delineates how the social dilemmas faced in the Mahabharata are timeless dilemmas and how the nature of doing "right" or "being good" is never so clear. A Masterful work!

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    Posted July 2, 2011

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    Posted June 26, 2011

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