The Mahabarata is also true to life with flawed characters populating the text, quite unusual for a holy book. For example, Yudishthir’s weakness for gambling, Duryodhan’s jealous streak, Karna’s status anxiety, Krishna’s guile — all add up to make it more human and readable.
In fact, as Das points out, the Mahabharata almost humanises the Kaurav (who are the bad guys) in an attempt to portray the good Pandav guys with empathy (Tat Tvam Asi), to kindle a universal moral sentiment. In contrast, the Ramayana, the other Hindu holy text from an earlier era has more black and white answers with an idealistic Ram and an evil Ravan.
The climax of the Mahabharata is when Yudhishthir is about to enter heaven. Indra, heaven’s gatekeeper, comes in his celestial chariot and requests Yudhishthir to please get in so they can ride into heaven together. The self-effacing Yudhishthir, looking a bit puzzled, asks Indra’s permission if they can also take in a stray dog who has been following him for a few days.
Indra initially declines, Yudhishthir pauses, looks around and says, “My Lord Indra, in that case I will forgo heaven.” This little episode with the dog was actually Indra’s test of compassion for Yudhishthir, which he passes with flying colours and he enters heaven with the stray.
Das posits that the editors of the Mahabharata may have been influenced by the Buddhist concept of ‘karunamaya’, or compassion, as the book was written much later (between 400 BC – 300 AD) than the actual Mahabharata war in Kurukshetra (950 BC).
In fact, the author asks a very important question: what would have been the outcome at Kurukshetra if Arjun’s charioteer had been Gautam Buddha instead of the clever Krishna?
The Difficulty of Being Good is replete with graphic, lyrical, and evocative prose, as this passage by Das illustrates:
In the summer, I returned to India to visit my mother. On the way, the train stopped at a very sleepy station, about a hundred miles north of Delhi. I stepped on to the platform and discovered that this was no ordinary station: it was historic Kurukshetra where the Mahabharata’s futile war of annihilation had been fought. In the burning heat of the summer afternoon, I began to imagine the brutal magnificence of the raging, ruthless battles. I saw a dithering Arjun, the greatest warrior of his age put down his Gandiva bow and refuse to fight — leaving his debonair and confident charioteer, Krishna, who is also God, with a problem on his hands. I visualised ruthless Drona grinding the exhausted Pandav armies into the dust. Suddenly he turns anxiously to his pupil, Yudhishthir to ask if the rumour about his son’s death is true. Yudhishthir — who has never spoken false — tells a white lie and his fabulous chariot, which always traveled slightly above the ground, sinks into the dust.
In a sense, this is a book review of The Difficulty of Being Good, which itself is a book review of the Mahabharata 2,000 years after it was written.
As we put down the book, it is hard to erase the image of Arjun folding his hands in front of the flamboyant Krishna, refusing to fight, while the ruthless Drona and remorseful Yudhishthir are carrying on a conversation in the heat of battle.
Buddha Basnyat is a physician at the Patan Institute of Health Sciences. Disclaimer: Gurcharan Das is his phuaju, uncle.