I first met Gurcharan Das on a night train to Kalka in the early 1980s. He was CEO of Procter & Gamble and I was an economics lecturer from Hyderabad. The other occupant of our coupe was the Marxist economic historian Amiya Kumar Bagchi. Three unlikely co-passengers from a Graham Greene novel. We were all on our way to a conference on the history of Indian industrialisation at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla.
Gurcharan Das is without doubt the most erudite CEO I have ever met. Our conversation that day was about economic liberalisation and the coming of age of Indian business. My most recent conversation with Gurcharan, in Singapore, was about the impediments to more ethical governance in India. The two conversations define the two sides of Gurcharan’s preoccupations.
His book India Unbound captured the change in post-liberalisation India. It echoed our hopes for a new India. In The Difficulty of Being Good, Gurcharan voices our despair about inequities and the amorality of public life.
This book reveals a new Gurcharan. Reflective, humane, deeply spiritual and secular—a renaissance man.
Gurcharan poses a simple question. How do we understand and interpret the word and the concept of ‘dharma’ in our lives? In seeking an answer he turns to the Mahabharata, and reads its versions in Sanskrit and English translations, and the many interpretations.
Gurcharan explores the idea of dharma in all its dimensions, while examining the frailties of human existence—envy, jealousy, greed, revenge, resentment, lust—and the many uplifting qualities of a righteous person, namely courage, valour, loyalty, selflessness, remorse, compassion, forgiveness and altruism.
He studies the Mahabharata for its contemporary relevance in guiding us around moral and ethical dilemmas in our daily lives. How does one deal with the anxieties of our social existence? Status and class, loyalty and self-interest, the morality of war and the immorality of family loyalties. He finds the idea of ‘reciprocal altruism’—‘adopt a friendly face to the world but do not allow yourself to be exploited’—helpful in explaining Yudhishthira’s moral journey from what I would dub ‘actionless morality’ to ‘actionable morality’. The Mahabharata is as much a story of renunciation as it is of action. It is both a guide to retirement and a call to arms. Gurcharan offers us a rational and secular reading of a great epic that has become a religious text. The underlying materialism of the epic’s spiritual world is repeatedly illustrated.
I found Gurcharan’s sympathetic treatment of Draupadi most illuminating. Her potent question to Yudhishthira, “Whom did you lose first, yourself or me?”, is met with silence from the high and mighty, but evokes a thought-provoking response from Vidura, who says, “If a person comes with a grievance and raises a question about dharma, it must be resolved without partiality.” Vidura then quotes the sage Kashyapa about the “immorality of remaining silent when there is evil afoot”.
What is truly appealing about Gurcharan’s contemporaneous reading of the Mahabharata is his reinforcement of liberal values. The epic’s wisdom empowers the individual and shows us the way forward in dealing with daily challenges. It is not a ‘moral’ text, because the epic is characterised by moral ambiguity. It does not take a categorical position in the classic debate on ‘ends and means’, often interpreting ‘ends’ in a manner that would justify the ‘means’. Despite its moral ambiguity, it shows how one can act righteously in an amoral world.
Gurcharan has good reasons for the subtitle, for dharma is indeed a ‘subtle art’, not a commandment cast in stone. To illustrate some contemporary moral dilemmas, he uses examples ranging from the battle of the Ambani brothers, to Ramalinga Raju’s handling of Satyam and to Manmohan Singh’s response to allegations against Pratibha Patil.
In the autobiographical sections he draws from his own life and the lessons he has learned. He reflects on his decision to call it quits, as CEO of Procter & Gamble, at the early age of 50 and live his vanaprasthya as a writer. We must thank Gurcharan for his wisdom in making that choice, for we are today the true beneficiaries of his personal decision.