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Parameters of a Philosophical Quest

Arshia Sattar

By Gurcharan Das
Allen Lane/Penguin Books, 2009, pp. 434, RS.699.00


The Difficulty of Being Good is as wonderful a title for a book as it is a philosophical statement that provides the parameter for a lifetime’s quest. The declaration, for it is such, boldly encapsulates theproblem that has compelled humankind for centuries. For me, it circumscribes the central problem of being, it is the very definition of the human condition. I imagine that animals have no moral centre from within which they act, that ethics and morality are the unique purview of human beings, that it is the capacity to choose to be good that makes us different from other sentient beings. At least on this planet, as we know it. Cultures and peoples define the idea of good differently, perhaps. But it would seem that we all have an idea of the good, the true, the beautiful. And we also have an idea of how to locate these values for ourselves and how to recognize the same aspiration in others. Sometimes, it’s our philosophers who teach us how to discriminate, how to discern, how to ponder. But very often (and much more accessibly), it is our story-tellers who engage with these questions, spinning layered tales that consider the idea of the good in all its complexity. Hindus (secular, liberal and otherwise) have always believed that it is the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (rather than the Vedas or the Upanisads), that actually explore and comment on what it means to be good. By extension, these texts explore what it means to be human and that too, in the presence of a god who has become human precisely to examine the limits of goodness. We tend to think of the Ramayana as the story where what is good is clear and manifest and do-able, whereas the Mahabharata is the story where even the idea of what is good is murky. In the Mahabharata’s own words, dharma is suksma—ever so subtle, slippery, delicate, elusive. Following the text’s own stated impulse, i.e., to try and discover what is good and excavate how it might be deemed as such, Gurcharan Das picks the Mahabharata to illuminate the idea of goodness for our times. In doing so, he displays more than a passing acquaintance with the other great texts and minds of the world, a genuine interest in the bedrock of ethical action and an utterly disarming literary conceit ...

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