For 30 years I had gone to work each morning. My wife and I had raised two children. Gradually, I had moved up the corporate hierarchy with more pay and responsibility. At 50, I asked myself, what had I really achieved? I felt as though I was waking up each morning, going to work, and feeding my family — only to repeat it the following day. My children would probably follow me and go on to do the same thing with their children. What was the point of it all? Is this all there was to life? I wanted to find a better way to live.
I had been very competitive throughout my corporate life, but I could not reconcile to my boss’s view that “it is not enough to do well. Someone has to lose, and you must be the one to win”. Duryodhana in the Mahabharata would have approved of my boss’s big-chested sentiments, but I wondered: once one’s youth, vigour and thrill of winning are gone, what happens then? How long could an adult be expected to be motivated by a 1 per cent gain in the monthly market share of Vicks Vaporub or Ariel detergent?
I felt weary by the time I was 50, and it was this feeling of futility that drove me, in part, to take early retirement. My Kshatriya-like craving to win was disappearing and my job had begun to resemble the futile labours of Yudhishthira. I identified with Karna’s sense of mortality when he says, “I see it now: this world is swiftly passing.”
Thoughts such as these — of life’s futility, of mortality and the passage of time — tend to drive one to religion. But instead, they made me ask if virtue might be one of the very few things of genuine worth in this world, and if it might give meaning to my life. I was interested in dharma (virtue) rather than moksha (salvation), and I wondered if India’s foundational text, the Mahabharata, might have something to teach me. The familiar pain of being alive and human filled me with admiration for Yudhishthira’s commitment to dharma, to satya (truth), ahimsa (non-violence) and anrishamsya (compassion).
When I began my quest, I did not imagine that I would be undertaking an enterprise quite so bizarre. I tried to picture the look of shocked incomprehension on Yudhishthira’s face when he loses his kingdom and his wife in the dice game and this happens at the very moment of his greatest triumph when he is consecrated ‘king of kings’. He could only suppose that his world had gone awry.
Gradually, I began to realise that the dice game may be symbolic of the quixotic, vulnerable human condition in which one knows not why one is born, when one will die, and why one faces reverses on the way. The only thing certain, the Mahabharata tells us, is that kala (time or death) is ‘always cooking us’ and that the truth about dharma is hidden in a cave.
I had to depend on a gambling addict and a loser. A curious choice for a guide, you might think. Yudhishthira is so fraught with frailties to be an unhero, anayaka. His world is off-balance and the God, Krishna, constantly feeds this imbalance, fostering disorder. Although he is a warrior, he lacks physical prowess, distrusts martial values and feels helpless. What redeems him is his insistence on being anything other than himself. Alone, he confronts the possibility that the universe might not care about dharma.
I felt something was clearly wrong when the epic begins with a remarkable murderous rite performed by King Janmejaya, the great-grandson of the valiant hero of the Mahabharata, Arjuna. He is holding a sacrifice to kill all the world’s snakes in order to avenge his father, Parikshit, who has been killed by a snake. Not a promising start for a heroic epic.
The story is also whacky — it is about a war between the “children of a blind pretender fighting the sons of a man too frail to risk the act of coition”. The winner of the war is the reluctant Yudhishthira, who does not want to fight, but who gives the order for the war to begin. Then he goes on to win the war, not by skill but by deception. After the bloody victory, he suffers bitterly, and says, “This victory looks more like defeat.” He has seen through the disturbing chaos of the world. His mournful regret at the war’s end is the all too familiar sadness for the defective human condition. The Mahabharata is a profoundly ironic text with a ‘very modern sense of the absurd’.
Yudhishthira persists in his Faustian search for dharma till the end. He hopes to find goodness in heaven but he encounters the villainous Duryodhana instead. In hell, he finds Draupadi and his brothers, and the old look of incomprehension returns on his face. It reminded me of Sisyphus, the Greek hero, who was condemned to push a huge rock up a hill. Each time he neared the peak, the stone rolled down to the bottom. Yudhishthira has the same look on his face as Sisyphus when he sees the rock rolling down — the realisation that life may well be futile.
After six years with the Mahabharata, I have come to realise that despite its dark, chaotic theme, and despite ironic reminders about how difficult it is to be good, the Mahabharata is able to snatch victory in the character of its unhero, Yudhishthira. He teaches that it is part of the human condition to also aspire. He shows that it is possible for good to triumph even in a time of cosmic destructiveness, making us realise that the theme of the Mahabharata is not war but peace.
I may not care for the ascetic streak in his character, but I do believe that ascetics rarely cause the mayhem and violence that conventional heroes do. Yudhishthira demonstrates that an act of goodness might be one of the very few things of genuine worth in this world.
Gurcharan Das is a consultant to industry and the government. This is an edited extract from The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma (Penguin). The views expressed by the author are personal