Gautam Chikermane: Another Mahabharata. What’s new?
Gurcharan Das: The insight I bring is the insight from evolutionary biology. Charles Darwin asked the question: how did human beings acquire a moral sense? And work done in the last 30-40 years show how genetically we have evolved to a position called “reciprocal altruism”. That survival of the fittest doesn’t mean we’re living by the laws of the jungle. So, the position that Yudhishthira comes from is that you first present a good face. If the other side does not reciprocate, then your dharma is not to turn the other cheek but to slap him back.
GC: Where, then, is the difficulty of being good?
GD: The difficulty lies in several things. One, we often do not know what is the right thing. Two, we often face a dharmasankata, a moral dilemma — when two duties are in conflict and we don’t know which is the right thing to do. And three, often we know the right thing to do, but knowing that we still do the wrong thing.
GC: The entire Mahabharata is filled with dharmasankats. In The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen writes that in the Krishna-Arjuna discourse of the Bhagwad Gita, Arjuna’s was a stronger argument. What is your view?
GD: There is no easy answer. My sympathies are also with Arjuna. And all the arguments Krishna gives, including the most elegant one, which is about nishkama karma (selfless work), don’t persuade Arjuna. Finally, Krishna has to assume his godly form.
GC: So, it was the brute force of Krishna’s spirituality…
GD: Yes, true. It was not through reason. Which makes you believe that Arjuna had a very strong argument.
GC: So, Anil Ambani is your Duryodhana?
GD: I think there is a bit of Duryodhana in Mukesh as well. Anil represents Duryodhana’s envy against the Pandavas. Duryodhana could not tolerate the success of the Pandavas — he didn’t care what happened to him, as long as the Pandavas did not succeed. Mukesh is also Duryodhana because he didn’t give his brother his due share. In the Mahabharata, it took a war to sort it out and everyone died. I just hope that won’t happen here.
GC: What about the epic’s most contradictory character, Karna?
GD: Karna suffers from and is driven by status anxiety. Which brings me to the caste system, affirmative action and reservations. Karna wants to be accepted as a kshatriya. He was an OBC with a chip on his shoulder. What his and Eklavya’s stories bring out is the pain they go through trying to be a somebody, trying not to be a nobody.
GC: You express a pain at being labelled a ‘saffronite’ for following the Mahabharata. Has the space for the liberal Hindu been hijacked by radical extremists, such that you can’t be a Hindu abd wear an orange tee-shirt without inviting a ‘saffron’ comment?
GD: The dilemma of a liberal Hindu today is that on one side these elements have hijacked our heritage. On the other side, the secularists are equally fundamentalist in branding you and I, when they see us reading the Mahabharata, as having turned saffron. You’ve got fundamentalists on both sides and for the decent, honest, believers or non-believers — there’s room for both in Hinduism — who loves our classics, there is no room.