One of my most fascinating one-to-one conversations this year was with Gurcharan Das, businessman-cum-sage who has written a number of books including India Unbound. Gurcharan also writes for the Times of India, and when we met he had just filed his weekly column. I know this because the task had kept him from his lunch and so when I offered him a plateful of biscuits with his tea he ate the lot.
When he was 50, Das gave up commercial life to take an ‘academic vacation’. He went to Chicago and studied Sanscrit scriptures, Western philosophy and anything in between. The Difficulty of Being Good is one of the many fruits of his extensive reflection on life and is an extended discussion of the qualities of the characters in the Indian epic the Mahabharata.
The book, like the epic, is wide-ranging, considering subjects like ‘courage’, ‘duty’, ‘despair’, ‘selflessness’ and so on. It’s main focus however, as the subtitle suggests, concerns ‘the subtle art of dharma’. As our conversation came to an end he asked me what impact the book had made on me. I said it was to make me want to understand dharma more deeply. It’s not a western idea, not part of my mental furniture at all, and while I wonder whether it is possible really for me to understand it, I feel that it is worth continuing to try.
Up to that point our chat had spiralled around the difference between the way he approached the virtues and vices which form the focus of each chapter and how they would look from a Christian perspective. We spoke a bit about original sin – something he has no time for in the book, which is an interesting point of agreement with Susan Neiman whom I have already discussed in this series.
When I read the book I was particularly fascinated by the concept of ‘nishkama karma’ which surfaces in the most famous part of the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita.
The idea connects with the familiar idea of duty – though it is more than that. It means that when we act we should focus not on the personal consequences, benefits or fruits of an action but on its rightness. ‘Be intent on the act, not on its fruits,’ is what Krishna says to Arjuna in the Gita and this is the most succinct summary of the concept.
Das explores the question of whether it makes a person more moral, and the world a better place, if we focus not on what we get from doing something but whether it is right to do it. To put it another way, he is asking whether human beings can flourish if they act selflessly.
In the end he is not convinced. This is too high an ambition, we can never entirely get over our ‘big fat egos’, and so we should learn to work with this reality rather than seek to overcome it.
Another fascinating chapter concerns envy. One of his starting points is that maybe envy is not a bad thing but a good thing, not a vice but a virtue. This is the view his father took – seeing it as fostering a healthy competitive spirit. This view is not uncommon. It sees envy at the root of aspiration and ambition.
Reflecting on this after years of a very successful business career, Das suggests that there are two types of envy. There is indeed a benign kind, that spurs us on to do as well as or better than others. But he also identifies a form of envy that is pernicious and malicious. In particular he noticed how Indian people envied and badmouthed those who were wealthy enough to be able to lend them money.
He goes on to write that ‘The envy I encountered in the business world, however, was nothing to what I would see later in the academic world’. He quotes Henry Kissinger’s cruel explanation that the extent of the envy in academia is because ‘so little is at stake’ and goes on to say that ‘there is a certain misery attached to the academic life, no doubt, in which envy plays a considerable part’.
There is much more that could be said about envy, but one of the things I learnt was that envy is often a sad and pathetic emotion in that we tend to envy people who are only slightly more fortunate than we are. Few of us envy the hugely successful, but we can have very bad feelings about those whom we feel are slightly more fortunate than us. There’s a little bit of spite in envy: why should you be better, luckier, richer, more blessed in any way than me?
Das’ book is a treasure-chest of insights from a man who has worked hard in the real world of business but who retired early to reflect at length. It is also a helpful introduction and guide to a huge Indian epic. There is no need to agree with any of Das’ conclusions to benefit from reading it. There are plenty fo insights littered through its pages, some of which feel commonplace, while others are like precious stones of a kind you have not seen before. And as I said to him, it really made me wonder about dharma. Does that word represent something that needs to be named and understood if we are to ever get a firm grip on reality?
And our conversation made me reflect further on original sin. Is there something below the surface of human beings that drags them away from the highest ideas like selflessness towards vices like envy?