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Home >Opinion >Views >Opinion | Ramayana, Mahabharata and moral choices we face in this covid crisis

Even as India grapples with the difficult public policy choices forced on us by the covid-19 pandemic, state-run Doordarshan has been telecasting two classics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. While some critics have seen Hindu revivalist motives in these telecasts, the underlying themes and situations in these classics relate not to religion, but the ethical dilemmas they bring to the fore.

Many of the moral and ethical dilemmas presented in these epics relate to the difficult tradeoffs individual characters have had to make between personal principle and public good, between ego-centrism and acceptance of the unimportance of individual preferences in the context of potential calamity.

Consider just a few of them: was Dasharatha right to honour his promise of granting two boons to wife Kaikeyi when the kingdom would have benefited from the wise rule of his eldest son Rama? Did he make the right choice between doing right by his people and maintaining personal integrity as a king whose word could be trusted? Was Rama right to accept his father’s wishes as command and wander off into exile, or should his duty to his people have required him to reject his step-mother’s demands as unreasonable?

The moral dilemmas presented in the Mahabharata are even starker. Was Bhishma right to believe that dharma required him to maintain his vow of celibacy, made in a moment of extreme commitment to his father, long after his father had passed? Did Bhishma deny Hastinapur the right to have a good and competent ruler when it was only his personal ego (to stick to his vow of celibacy) standing between him and the prevention of a fratricidal war between the Kauravas and Pandavas?

Then there is that ultimate moral dilemma that Shri Krishna expounds in the Bhagavad Gita: at what point does the desire for peace trump war, and vice-versa? In the 19th century, Abraham Lincoln decided that civil war was better than compromise with slavery. In the 20th century, Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah seem to have agreed that partition was better than civil war.

In an effort to keep the peace, Bhishma and Dhritarashtra decide to partition the kingdom by hiving off Indraprastha to the Pandavas. But in the end, partition did not prevent the Kurukshetra war. In 1947, India accepted partition for peace, but this did not prevent future wars between the partitioned nations.

The real value of the Ramayana and Mahabharata is that they present, in stark outline, the difficult public policy choices faced by people, nations and leaders. While some choices are easy to make, like helping the needy when state resources are adequate to do so, in many other situations, the choices are difficult. In the current covid-19 pandemic, it is difficult to decide between lives and livelihoods, and also the right juncture at which livelihoods have to become more important than merely saving lives. Almost no country in the world has got the mix right. Most have erred on the side of saving lives first; others that let livelihoods predominate thinking (the US, UK) are being castigated for subjecting their people to heavy losses of life.

India chose to lock down early in its pandemic cycle, and is being criticized for endangering the livelihoods of the poor at the cost of saving too few lives. The dilemma we now face is when and how to lift the lockdown, and what additional health risks we will be courting when we do ease up.

These current dilemmas are rooted in the poor choices we made in the past. Nothing illustrates this better than our low investment in healthcare and education. While this mistake in now widely acknowledged and will be rectified, less acknowledged is the poor investments we made in public transport. The biggest roadblock to ending the lockdown is actually poor public transport. Ending the lockdown at a time when there is no vaccine or cure for covid-19 means that social distancing cannot be maintained when people have to travel in jam-packed buses, metro cabins and train compartments.

This is true for airlines as well. Air carriers will not be viable if they are asked to keep seats vacant in order to maintain physical distance on board between one passenger and another. Offices cannot return to regular routines if employees have to use packed buses and trains for their commutes. Mumbai, for example, is the country’s worst-affected city in terms of covid-19 infections. But Mumbai’s economy is heavily dependent on its over-crowded suburban trains and buses. How will Mumbai ever get back to normal in this situation?

Now that we are in the midst of a pandemic, the choice is clear: we have to invest in public transport, and a return to normal work needs states to subsidize this.

But some of the larger dilemmas remain: what is the tradeoff between growth and higher taxation in order to redistribute incomes in favour of the poor? What is the right mix of public expenditure between public goods (law and order, enforcement of contracts), and private goods (subsidies to the poor and not-so-poor)? What is the tradeoff between the negative economic impact of the fight against black money and the moral degeneracy that excessive corruption entails?

There are no easy answers. But for a people so steeped in the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, we should at least be able to weigh the costs and benefits better than we have done so far.

R. Jagannathan is editorial director, ‘Swarajya’ magazine

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