Gurcharan Das: 2010 National Book Festival

Uploaded by LibraryOfCongress on 12.10.2010

>> From the library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
>> In 1995 after a 30-year career in 6 countries,
he retired to that leisurely life of full time writing,
which we all know is so easy.
He writes a regular column on Sunday for the Times of India,
and he's also a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal,
the Financial Times, and Time Magazine.
He's here today to talk about his most recent book
which is called The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art
of Dharma which asks the question, why be good?
This is also a sort of homecoming for Mr. Das
who attended our Roosevelt High School in Washington,
D.C. So, Mr. Das, welcome home.
[ Applause ]
>> Das: You do me honor by coming here to listen to me.
Someone just called me a management guru, and I didn't get a chance
to tell him that my idea of such a guru is somebody who's good
at understanding, "gu," but relatively useless.
[Laughter] In my last book, India Unbound,
I predicted the economic rise of India, and if I was that sort
of person, I would tell you today that I told you so.

[Laughter] So prosperity is spreading in India as it is
in China, but happiness is not.
India will turn into a middle class country like the west or like some
of the countries in the Far East, but what is troubling is the fact
that we have the most appalling governance.
You've been reading about the Commonwealth games fiasco.
That's just one example, and I'm not thinking
of a minister who's got with a bride.
That happens everywhere.
I'm thinking of how governance hurts the poor.
One out of four schoolteachers in a government primary school
in India does not show up, and one out of four
who shows up is not teaching.

Governance failure, and I could give you many examples like this.
Governance failure has two dimensions.
One is the economic dimension or the institutional dimension.
In other words, if you could punish an absent schoolteacher,
all the schoolteachers would show up the next day, and schoolteachers now
in India earn 22,000 rupees a month
which is seven times per capita income of India.
So it's a good salary.
Most countries the per capita income relationship is one is
to two instead of one is to seven, and that is why I say
that if there's a race between India and China, if there is a race,
it will be decided by the fact if India fixes its governance first
or China fixes its politics first
because both countries are going to become prosperous.
They're going to rise economically.
But there's a moral dimension.
If the schoolteacher shows up, would that schoolteacher teach
with inspiration saying that I'm preparing the next generation?
And so to examine the moral dimension,
in this book The Difficulty of Being Good, I go to the epic,
the 2,500-year-old epic, the Mahabharata [assumed spelling].
Now why this bizarre undertaking?
Well, the first thing is the Mahabharata is unique and engaging
in the world of politics.
Second, the Mahabharata is obsessed with dharma.
Now many of you know in this country karma, but you don't know dharma.
Dharma can mean many things.
It can mean law, it can mean duty, it can mean virtue,
but essentially it means doing the right thing, and so, you know,
in a Greek epic like the Iliad, if Achilles does something wrong
to Hector, well he just gets on with it.
In the Mahabharata, the action stops, and everybody weighs in as
to what went wrong and the argumentative Indian takes over.

The third reason is that dharma, nobody asks
and the Mahabharata says, "Let us ask God for what is dharma."
In your tradition, in Christianity, for example,
you have the Ten Commandments, and so you have to wrestle
with it yourself, and I believe
that good moral reasoning is behind good moral action.
And finally, the notion of dharma is a pragmatic notion.
It does not seek moral perfection.
Hence it is more suited for policy makers and for political leaders.
So my book is one man's search for dharma in our contemporary world,
and dharma understood both as private virtue,
but also public or civic virtue.
So how do I go about what's my strategy to connect bad governance
with the Mahabharata, with dharma, and try to learn something
about the moral dimension of our life?
Most of the story of Mahabharata is very straightforward.
It's a, it's a rivalry between two sets of cousins, two children,
sets of children of two brothers, and it's a rivalry for the throne,
and to contain that rivalry, the kingdom is divided
and the better half goes to the bad guys,
and the worst half goes to the good guys.
The good guys are called the Pandavas [assumed spelling],
and the bad guys are called the Kauravas [assumed spelling],
but the good guys are diligent, hard working, and talented people
like all of you here, and they clear the forest.
They build themselves a beautiful capital.
They are, they have a great warrior, Arjuna [assumed spelling],
on their side, so they expand their dominions.
They have diplomatic skills, and so they make alliances,
and suddenly they become the most powerful kingdom in India,
and so the eldest brother, Udistir [assumed spelling],
is told that now you must have a [inaudible] ceremony
of consecrating you as emperor.
So all the kings and nobles of the surrounding areas come
to this great ceremony bringing lots of tribute and wealth.
Also invited is the eldest brother on the other side, their neighbor,
[inaudible], and when he sees the success of his cousins,
he grows envious, and his uncle who has accompanied him,
Shakuni [assumed spelling], he says, "My lord, you go, you grow pale
and sick," and he listened to what Duryodhana [assumed spelling] says.
He says, "What man of metal will stand
to see his rivals prosper and himself decline?
What man of metal will see his neighbor prosper?"
And in this he has captured the awful nature of envy,
something that afflicts us all as human beings
and something we never admit and never forgive.
You can understand jealousy.
Jealously is that I'm afraid my friend may run away with my wife,
and you will sympathize with me, but envy,
just because my friend is doing well,
that I should feel bad and diminished.
Oh, I pretend.
I go and congratulate him, but inside I don't like it,
and envy strikes us when we are very young.
I remember when I was 5 years old there was another boy
in our neighborhood who had a red toy engine, and I hated him for it,
and when he was not looking, I broke it.

[Laughter] Terrible.
They did a study at Harvard University,
and asked the graduating class,
"Would you like to earn hundred thousand dollars a year
or fifty thousand dollars a year?"
Of course everybody wanted to earn hundred thousand,
but then they put a condition
that if you earn hundred thousand dollars,
your friends will be earning two hundred thousand,
and if you earn fifty thousand,
then your friends will be earning twenty-five thousand.
Do you know that 83% of the people switched their answer,
and that's why CEO's know that compensation is relative.

Anyway, when I grew up, I ran this company Procter & Gamble in Bombay,
and our factory was next door to the Phillips factory,
you know the Dutch electronics company,
and the Phillips factory had been on strike for a whole year,
and we were worried what was going to happen to us,
and one day I heard the union leader of the Phillips factory say
that I don't care if we ever open this factory again as long
as the Dutch factory manager goes down.
[ Pause ]
This is why I think they're right when they say that if the sin
of capitalism is greed, the sin of socialism is envy,
and envy affects our lives, our public lives,
private lives in terrible ways.
You know, I never understood how
in the 1930's decent middle class Germans allowed themselves
to be swayed by Hitler in this terrible way
and the way what they did to the Jews until I read that more than 50%
of the professionals of Berlin and Vienna were Jews.
Sixty-four percent of the physicians of Vienna were Jews
when the total population of Jews was less than 10%.
So those societies were seething with envy.
Anyway, let's come back to the Mahabharata.
So the uncle says, "Look these Pandavas have grown too powerful,

and so we can't take them on in a straight contest," and so he says,
"We will have to use strategy."
Now what does he mean by strategy?
He says, "I'm the best dice player in the world,
and Yudhishtira [assumed spelling], the eldest, the king, the good guy,
is the worst, but he's addicted to gambling."
Plus he says, "You can't lose
because I cheat, and nobody knows how."
And sure enough there is a gambling match set up, and all the kings
and nobles come to this, and Yudhishtira loses everything.
He loses his horses, his armies, his kingdom, and he loses,
then he loses his brothers.
Then he stakes himself and he loses himself and finally his wife.
And so to humiliate the good guys, the Pandavas, who've been trapped
in this game of dice, the bad guys drag in the queen,
Draupadi [assumed spelling], who's a beautiful woman off the Pandavas
to humiliate the Pandavas in a patriarchical society,
but they don't count on this woman.
She's no weeping lady who's going to stand up there to be humiliated.
So she asks the question, "Did my husband lose me first,
or did he lose himself first?"
And immediately the Kaurava sense a trap
because he had lost himself first, and, of course,
if he had lost himself first, then he was no longer competent
to gamble her because only a free person-he was already a slave-only a
free person can gamble anything.

Anyway, the bad guys are not going to be deterred by this, so they say,
"Strip her," and the younger brother gets up and starts pulling her sari,
and as he pulls her sari, the sari keeps expanding infinitely,
and after half an hour, he sits down tired and humiliated,
and at this point, Draupadi, the queen, gets very angry,
and she looks at this assembly, and she says,
"How did you let this happen?
You are kings and tell me what is the dharma of the king?"
And there is silence, and particularly she looks
at the elder statesman, the grandfather,
Bhishma [assumed spelling], but nobody says a word
at which point they are told that when a crime occurs,
one-half the punishment goes to the person who commits the crime,
a quarter of the punishment goes to the ally, but a quarter goes
to those who remained silent.

Now we have a very important piece of legislation right now
in the Indian parliament which is called the Whistle-Blower Bill,
which is to encourage people not to remain silent to protect them,

[background noise] and let me return back to the Mahabharata.

People want to know what actually happened.
Why did the miracle take place?
And there's a lot of discussion, and one person says
that well, it was dharma.
Dharma also means cosmic justice, that she was a good woman,
and therefore, the miracle of the expanding sari.
Now the Mahabharata is a very popular story in India,
and we had recently in the 90's, a very pop, hugely popular,
the largest ratings on television, serial over 104 weeks,
of the Mahabharata, and when the Draupadi episode came,
a clever [inaudible] company marketed a Draupadi collection
of saris, but those saris unfortunately did not expand
infinitely, so the company did not gain much market share.

Anyway, now the Pandavas are in the forest.
They have been exiled for losing their kingdom,
and Draupadi sees her husband sleeping on the hard earth,
and she says, "My heart weeps for you who have always slept on sheets
of silk and pillows of down."
They had goose down pillows in those days.
And you with thousand retainers," and she says,
"What kind of world is this that are the good people destined to suffer
and the bad people who stole our kingdom in a rigged game
of dice destined to live in palaces" or mansions in Georgetown
or wherever the rich live?

And there's a, so she tells her husband, "Look, let's get an army
and let's go and win our kingdom back, and your dharma,
you're a warrior [inaudible] and your dharma is to wage a just war,
and our kingdom was stolen from us.
That's a just war."
And he says, "No, my dharma is that I've given my word that we will go
into exile for 13 years."
So you see there's a clash in the Mahabharata
of two different meanings of dharma, dharma as a warrior whose virtue
to fight or dharma as having a more personal virtue
as having given my word, and this clash
of dharma is what drives the narrative forward.
Anyway, they have a long discussion at this point,
and the royal counselor, Vitura [assumed spelling],
who visits them says, "Dharma is very easy to know.
All you have to do is look at the consequences."
He's a public figure, so he looks at the consequences,
and if an act helps the people, then its dharma.
If it does not, then it's not dharma and so, but Yudhishtira says
that I act because I must meaning that he looks at his own motivations
when he acts, and there was, when I was working
on this chapter there was a report in the newspaper about a child
who was drowning in the coast of Goa, and a young man jumped in
and saved this child, and the reporter from Times
of India said, "You're a hero.
Why did you do it?"
And he said, "Well, we are a college party, and I was trying
to impress a girl in our party," [laughter] and she says,
"But then you're not a hero,"
but Vitura would have said the child was saved, the dharma was done,
but you see Yudhishtira would have jumped
in even if nobody was looking.
So you see how the Mahabharata helps you
to improve your moral reasoning skills.
Now, I could go on and on,
and the fact is constantly the Mahabharata makes you look
in the mirror, look at the absentee schoolteachers in the mirror,
shows them the mirror, and raises questions
of governance and moral failure.
It's a dark story.
It's a dark story because it leads, there's a, the Kaurava,
Pandavas come back, the Kauravas don't give them back their kingdom.
There's a war, and on the first day of the war the general
of the Pandavas, Arjuna [assumed spelling],
he looks at all the armies arrayed before him, and he sees his cousins,
he sees people he played ball with, sees his uncles and his grandfather,
and he says, "I don't want to kill these people.
I'm not going to fight."
And he tells his charioteer, and his charioteer is the god,
Krishna [assumed spelling].
So the god Krishna has to spend the next 700 verses trying
to persuade him to fight, but this is a question
that Indians keep asking.
Who is right, Krishna or Arjuna?
Should he fight or not?
Now the difference here is that he's not just a general who's not going
to fight.
You can't just say, "Well we invested in sending him
to West Point and all that and made him a general."
He's also a political leader,
and I think what the Mahabharata is saying is
that when our political leaders take us to war,
we want them to consider the moral dimension also.
Now recently your country went to war in Iraq,
and there must have been a meeting of the, of the Cabinet, War Cabinet,
and there must have been Mr. Chaney and Mr. Rumsfeld there,
and they must have discussed that night the economic consequences
and the political consequences, but I bet you nobody said
in that meeting that tomorrow we're going to war.
We're going to kill a lot of people.
Some of the people we're going to kill are going
to die, are our own people.
Now they may still go to war, but we want our leaders before they take us
to war to consider the moral dimension.
[ Applause ]
Anyway, I'm coming to the end, and the Mahabharata is a dark story
in which everybody dies, and there's a war, and the winners have to rule
over an empty kingdom, but at the end Yudhishtira's going to heaven
and accompanying him is a dog, and when he reaches heaven,
the king of heaven comes out and welcomes him but instead of going
into heaven, he says, "What about this dog?"
And the god, Indra [assumed spelling], the heaven keeper says,
"But he's not even your dog.
He's dirty street dog, but besides this is heaven.
No dogs allowed."
[Laughter] And then Yudishtira says, "What kind of a place is heaven
which does not even understand the abc of dharma,
that if somebody asks you for refuge, you help them out,"
and I bet you nobody in this room would have done this, but everybody,
every child in every culture will understand the meaning of dharma
from this story, and what the Mahabharata is really saying is
that in this darkness an act of goodness is one
of the very few things of value we have.
Thank you.
[ Applause ]
>> This has been a presentation of the Library of Congress.
Visit us at
[ Pause ]