For most of us, our days are consumed by the immediate: project deadlines, the day’s agenda, children to pick up. What is often missing is an underlying foundation, a deeper rationale that guides our actions.
A common exercise to help focus on this long-term perspective is the “tombstone exercise”—what will be written on one’s tombstone when one is dead (only metaphorically for most Indians, of course since Hindus get cremated).
In discussions with many people, I have heard statements that were almost always thoughtful, often large and visionary—“he helped create tens of thousands of jobs”; “she changed how India thought about children’s education”; and so on.
However, one particular statement has stayed with me, for its riveting simplicity. The person said: “He was well used by others.”
He was well used by others. While the selflessness in the phrase is praiseworthy, there is an additional trait that stands out: that of being “good”. This isn’t to suggest that being good is at odds with being great, but that living a good life is an aspiration that needs to be pursued with as much passion as any other—indeed, should precede other pursuits.
In a book titled Ethical Ambition, Derrick Bell, one of America’s most influential law professors and civil rights activists, writes of living a life of meaning and worth, but openly acknowledges that this need not be inconsistent with ambition. He writes: “I am ambitious and...not averse to pursuing success.” However, he says, “We live in a society that glorifies success in terms of wealth, power, and celebrity with little regard as to how that success was achieved.” Bell practises what he preaches—as the first Black tenured professor at Harvard, he resigned in protest against a decision by the university, at great risk to his career.
Independently, in a doctoral dissertation at the University of Exeter titled In search of Max Weber’s new prophets, Bruno Kahne, an experienced organizational consultant with Airbus, analysed the top business gurus around the world, and assessed them on a variety of factors, to see who could qualify as the “prophet” that Weber referred to in his seminal book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Kahne is alluding to Weber’s point that “after tremendous development, capitalism would either collapse or enter a new era of development through the guidance of new prophets”.
Based on a series of scores, Kahne rates Stephen Covey, the best-selling author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as the most influential of business guru of our time. While Covey’s insights span a vast canvas, one of his central points is about ethics and the centrality of “goodness”—“to do well you must do good, and to do good you must first be (emphasis mine) good”.
Clearly, we in India have our own history of thought on the subject of goodness, but they are lost within arcane texts and enigmatic scripts—at least to a modern-day Indian like me, not available in an idiom that I can relate to.
Until now. Gurcharan Das has just published his magnum opus The Difficulty of Being Good. A remarkable work of research and relevance, the book uses the Mahabharat to explore the idea of dharma and the challenges of living a good life. In each chapter, he weaves in a contemporary context to a particular theme of dharma that the epic illustrates.
In one passage, related to Draupadi’s disrobing, he examines in detail her challenge to Duryodhana, “What is the dharma of the king?” In examining this issue, Das writes: “it is curious that no one in the Hastinapura assembly appealed to God to decide who is right and who is wrong. This is because God is not expected to be an authority on dharma among Hindus, Buddhists or Jains.”
After some more elaboration, he continues: “if God is not the arbiter of dharma, if the Vedas are contradictory, and if wise persons cannot agree about right and wrong, where does that leave the ordinary individual?”
The resolution to this question is that it is a personal quest. Das writes: “The concept of dharma evolved over time... to a more personal virtue based on one’s conscience.”
Despite being somewhat unsettling —that there is no universal measure of dharma or goodness, that it is ultimately subjective and individual—there is something deeply empowering about it. The idea of dharma requires each of us to take responsibility for our actions, to navigate this complex world guided by our own moral compass, constantly calibrating it in light of new insights and ideas.
This means, of course, that there are no easy paths, that we must accept the gnawing feeling that comes from the mind debating the soul, and the churn from the choices we make. So long as that battle is happening within us, we are OK, I guess—the only arena where the absence of battle is not a good sign. Because when there is no battle, it means that good has already lost.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Mobius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org