How Hinduism's Mahabharata Can Help Restore Ethics in India

Whether it is reigniting teachers' commitment to service or rooting out endemic corruption, the principles of leadership and commitment to the weak and poor of India's epic heroes found in the Mahabharata are needed today more than ever.
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Delhi is buzzing these days about the construction delays and shoddy work that have put the Commonwealth Games at risk. The blame goes squarely to corruption and inefficiency. There are plenty of other sad sagas in India across many fields: the spectacular corruption of the flagship software firm Satyam and the fact that one in four public school teachers fails to show up every day, for example. What will it take to change direction, to restore a sense of decency, an ethical compass?

Noted Indian writer, activist, journalist and former business leader Gurcharan Das last week reflected on what he terms India's spectacularly bad governance at a presentation at Georgetown University. His book, The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma, has been a publishing sensation in India, and is just coming out in the U.S. He argues forcefully that moral action needs to be grounded in moral reasoning. He looks for wisdom to achieve that in Hindu tradition. "Moral failure pervaded our public life and hung over it like Delhi's smog," he says, explaining why he set out on this intellectual exploration of morality.

Das focuses his examination of ethics on the ancient Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. A story with some 3,500 years of history, it has similarities to other cultural sagas such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, Dante's Divine Comedy and Virgil's Aeneid. But, Das notes, whereas the other bards didn't dwell on moral issues, the "argumentative Indians" linger on each situation, debating what the ethical lessons might be. The Mahabharata is, he says, obsessed with questions of right and wrong.

The Mahabharata is an epic tale of terrible and futile wars between the children of two brothers of the Bharata family. It is full of rivalry, feuds, envy, altruism, sexual tensions, kingdoms, heroes and villains. It deals with the justification for war, and duty to the weak and poor. It is a thrilling tale with memorable characters: Arjuna, talented and successful, Yudhishthira, tortured yet taking the moral option and caring for those who suffer, and Queen Draupadi, a feisty queen who stands up for right.

To give a taste of the epic, here is one passage: "In this cauldron fashioned from delusion, with the sun as fire and day and night as kindling wood, the months and seasons as the ladle for stirring Time (or Death) cooks all beings: this is the simple truth."

The book's central theme is dharma, a complex word that conjures duty, virtue, and lawfulness. Dharma is, Das underscores, subtle and complex because doing good means navigating tough choices along the way. In the 21st century, many moral dilemmas resemble ancient tests, but with new dimensions. The recognition of complexity is a feature of the epic. Its earliest forms focused on rituals and prescriptions, but over time conscience came in. As the story evolved, the challenges of leadership and responsibility came to focus on weighing different obligations and making tough choices.

The epic is suspicious of ideology, and rejects idealistic pacifism and amorality. Its bottom line is a pragmatic evolution of reciprocal altruism.

Das has been criticized for seeking answers to India's moral challenges in Hindu spiritual traditions. Some said he might encourage right-wing fundamentalism or breach India's constitutional secular principles. He objects: "What sort of secularism is it that regards reading of Sanscrit texts as a political act?" Instead, he finds in India's rich spiritual heritage the foundation for an ethic of leadership and service.

The Hindu reform movement of Arya Samaj, to which Das's grandfathers belonged, advocated a return to the spirit of the ancient Vedas but also a modern, reformed Hinduism that drew on the broader spiritual heritage. In short, India has traditions that offer a grounding for the most complex and demanding of modern challenges.

Das argues that India's current failures show that prosperity and democracy are not enough. "Prosperity had indeed begun to spread across India, but goodness had not." He looks for answers in dharma, the moral law that sustains society, the individual and the world. Whether it is reigniting teachers' commitment to service or rooting out endemic corruption, the principles of leadership and commitment to the weak and poor of India's epic heroes found in the Mahabharata are needed today more than ever.

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