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01 January 2011

Non-Fiction: Roll the dice


Non-Fiction: Roll the dice
Book Reviewed By Noor Jehan Mecklai
Baffled by corruption in public life, and looking for more meaning in his own existence, Gurcharan Das took early retirement to study the Mahabharata with recognised Sanskrit scholars at Chicago University.
The result is this marvelous book in which he runs up and down the whole gamut of human failings, revealed in the text along with their results if unchecked, and the role of dharma in preventing or healing these ills.
In the process he refers among other things to ideas of virtue, duty and society from ancient Greece to the present day, and discusses in the light of dharma many issues — moral, social, economic, political, that have confronted society throughout the ages — one of the most recent being the Wall Street crash and its effect on the world at large. And here and there all this is seasoned with frank comments and reminiscences on his own life and career.
War has loomed large on man’s horizon since prehistoric times, and as the Mahabharata is centred round the Kurukshetra War, Das devotes three whole chapters to discussing this conflict with regard to the concept of the dharma-yuddha (the just war), its causes, its conduct and its results, pointing out that while a just war may be fought unjustly, so may an unjust one be fought according to the rules. Yet when the war ends, it is clear according to the ninth century critic Anandavardhana that the Mahabharata is about shanta, or calm resignation leading to Nirveda (sic).
As to the genesis of the epic, its author is said to be the sage Vyasa, but more likely it was composed by a great number of bardic poets, and revised and expanded by priests. The Brahmin redaction, which is all that now remains, appeared between 200 BCE and 200 CE; and from the 100 versions extant a critical edition was finally published by Sanskrit scholars in Pune last century.
Meanwhile dharma is derived from the Sanskrit dhr, meaning ‘to sustain’. It is the moral law that sustains society, the individual and the world. Furthermore, it refers to the order and balance within each individual, which is also reflected in the order of the cosmos. So the Mahabharata goes to great lengths to define it exactly and to show us how to be good in this world, dealing with such questions as why the good suffer and the bad prosper.
In earlier Vedic times, dharma meant doing those visible good deeds specific to one’s caste, and this was called sva-dharma, as with the Kshatriya dharma of yudishthira, ‘un-hero’ of the epic. But with the emergence of the yoga sects, and of Buddhism and Jainism came sadharana-dharma, which involves the cultivation of nine or 10 specific virtues — and this in turn generates good karma.
Thus, after his Pyrrhic victory in the Kurukshetra War between the two sides of the Bharata clan, with its desperate battle heroes, with Yudishthira’s devotion to dharma and with the paradoxical role of Krishna, we see this un-hero treading a lonely path in search of this universal dharma within his own conscience, searching also for the highest form of dharma, whether ahimsa (non-violence), maitri (acting for the sake of others) or anrishamsya (an extended form of compassion).
‘Dharma is subtle’ is a constant refrain in the Mahabharata. ‘(Righteous Draupadi), though you have suffered much, you still look to dharma… and the course of dharma is sovereign. (However), I cannot answer your question decisively because the matter is subtle.’ This is Bhishma’s answer to Queen Draupadi’s insistent question, ‘what is the dharma of a king?’ on that fateful day in Hastinapura when the newly consecrated King Yudishthira gambles away his kingdom, his queen and even himself in a loaded game of dice, thus setting in motion the events that led to the bloody and futile war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.
But why did the virtuous Yudishthira engage in that ruinous game of dice knowing full well that the other side were shameless cheats? Well, in the Vedic rajasuya ceremony, at the time of an imperial consecration the king was expected merely to preside over a very grand dice contest, intended to show what kind of cosmic age was about to begin.
However, the loaded game of dice is a metaphor for the vulnerable human life, in which death and time inevitably triumph. And Yudishthira was extremely vulnerable, firstly because he could not disobey his father, Dhritarashtra, who had been conned into making him participate, and secondly because these games held great fascination for him.
Towards the end, in a life or death contest with a yaksha (tree spirit) Yudishthira is asked how we should go about finding dharma. His answer crystallises much that is in the epic. He replies that reason is of limited use; that neither are the sacred texts helpful as they do not agree, and that there is no single sage whose opinion is final. So he concludes that ‘The truth about dharma is hidden in a cave,’ and with this answer saves his own life and those of the surviving Kauravas. Wouldn’t you agree then, that dharma is subtle? And of course the author points out that the dilemmas between intentions and consequences, between truthfulness and non-violence, and so on, go towards compounding the issue.
Reading this brilliant tour de force is an extremely enriching experience. It is a book not only to read, but to keep beside one, to open either with purpose or at random. Like the Mahabharata itself, it will always have something to teach us.
The Difficulty of Being Good: On the subtle art of dharma 
(Philosophy), By Gurcharan Das, Penguin Books, India, ISBN 978-0-6700-9349-7 ,434pp.