Restoring ethics in India

By Katherine MarshallFAITH IN ACTION Delhi is buzzing these days about the construction delays and shoddy work that have put … Continued

By Katherine Marshall

Delhi is buzzing these days about the construction delays and shoddy work that have put the Commonwealth Games at risk. The blame goes squarely to corruption and inefficiency. There are plenty of other sad sagas in India across many fields: the spectacular corruption of the flagship software firm Satyam and the fact that one in four public school teachers fails to show up every day, for example. What will it take to change direction, to restore a sense of decency, an ethical compass?

Noted Indian writer, activist, journalist and former business leader Gurcharan Das last week reflected on what he terms India’s spectacularly bad governance at a presentation at Georgetown University. His book, The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma, has been a publishing sensation in India, and is just coming out in the U.S. He argues forcefully that moral action needs to be grounded in moral reasoning. He looks for wisdom to achieve that in Hindu tradition. “Moral failure pervaded our public life and hung over it like Delhi’s smog,” he says, explaining why he set out on this intellectual exploration of morality.

Das focuses his examination of ethics on the ancient Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. A story with some 3,500 years of history, it has similarities to other cultural sagas such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Virgil’s Aeneid. But, Das notes, whereas the other bards didn’t dwell on moral issues, the “argumentative Indians” linger on each situation, debating what the ethical lessons might be. The Mahabharata is, he says, obsessed with questions of right and wrong.

The Mahabharata is an epic tale of terrible and futile wars between the children of two brothers of the Bharata family. It is full of rivalry, feuds, envy, altruism, sexual tensions, kingdoms, heroes and villains. It deals with the justification for war, and duty to the weak and poor. It is a thrilling tale with memorable characters: Arjuna, talented and successful, Yudhishthira, tortured yet taking the moral option and caring for those who suffer, and Queen Draupadi, a feisty queen who stands up for right.

To give a taste of the epic, here is one passage: “In this cauldron fashioned from delusion, with the sun as fire and day and night as kindling wood, the months and seasons as the ladle for stirring Time (or Death) cooks all beings: this is the simple truth.”

The book’s central theme is dharma, a complex word that conjures duty, virtue, and lawfulness. Dharma is, Das underscores, subtle and complex because doing good means navigating tough choices along the way. In the 21st century, many moral dilemmas resemble ancient tests, but with new dimensions. The recognition of complexity is a feature of the epic. Its earliest forms focused on rituals and prescriptions, but over time conscience came in. As the story evolved, the challenges of leadership and responsibility came to focus on weighing different obligations and making tough choices.

The epic is suspicious of ideology, and rejects idealistic pacifism and amorality. Its bottom line is a pragmatic evolution of reciprocal altruism.

Das has been criticized for seeking answers to India’s moral challenges in Hindu spiritual traditions. Some said he might encourage right-wing fundamentalism or breach India’s constitutional secular principles. He objects: “What sort of secularism is it that regards reading of Sanscrit texts as a political act?” Instead, he finds in India’s rich spiritual heritage the foundation for an ethic of leadership and service.

The Hindu reform movement of Arya Samaj, to which Das’s grandfathers belonged, advocated a return to the spirit of the ancient Vedas but also a modern, reformed Hinduism that drew on the broader spiritual heritage. In short, India has traditions that offer a grounding for the most complex and demanding of modern challenges.

Das argues that India’s current failures show that prosperity and democracy are not enough. “Prosperity had indeed begun to spread across India, but goodness had not.” He looks for answers in dharma, the moral law that sustains society, the individual and the world. Whether it is reigniting teachers’ commitment to service or rooting out endemic corruption, the principles of leadership and commitment to the weak and poor that India’s epic heroes found in the Mahabharata are needed today more than ever.

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

By Katherine Marshall | 
September 27, 2010; 12:21 AM ET

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  • woodstock-41

    A “Psychic Driving” System?

  • woodstock-41

    Oooppssa. Another Psychic Driving [Pre-Apocalyptic Religion] SYSTEM?

  • Secular

    Mahabartha indeed is indeed a very captivating book. If you pick the first book you cannot put it down until you have finished entire set of eighteen tomes. Longest book/poetry ever penned. That said, if one is looking for moral guidance, it is again an exercise in sifting through an ocean of moral horse manure for a few of those precious pearl bearing Oysters. This is a story just like any of the greek mythologies full of deceit and vile. The heroes are picked fairly early in the tomes and what ever vile things they do is rationalized away with the main theme ends justify the means. Like any of the mythologies its full of magic, superstition and mumbo-jumbo. Great entertaining book but finding Dharma is another matter.

  • woodstock-41

    Oppps.Do NOT-Fix what is NO-Broken!!

  • clearthinking1

    Hindus have been running India for only 60 years and things have improved significantly compared with the decline during the 1000 years of foreign occupation (Christian & Muslim).Hindu Dharma will naturally rise up now.Gujrat is a great example of the “Hindu rate of growth” in economics. Under Hindu leadership it is doing remarkably well, especially when compared with the British Christian or Muslim times.The foundations of Indian culture is based on the Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, and Vedas. These eternal truths will remain. The task for Indians is to relearn their own culture (Sanatana Dharma).

  • Jihadist

    Hindus have been running India for only 60 years and things have improved significantly compared with the decline during the 1000 years of foreign occupation (Christian & Muslim).- Clearthinking1*******************************************Good thing too India has cleaned up the Commonwealth Games village before the Games started. By the way, it was the “decline” – interstate rivalry, intrastate conflicts etc within, among Indian states, that enable foreign occupation and especially British “divide and rule”.

  • NonPseudoSecularist

    Root Cause of Poor Ethics:From 1950 to 1990, India was in the death grip of Nehruvian socialism, which is a lethal mixture of fabian socialism and communism, inspired license/quota/permit raj and long list of sky-high taxes. Every sphere of private and commercial life (e.g. purchasing a cooking gas, purchasing a bag of cement for home-repair etc.) was heavily regulated with a long list of do’s, don’t, license, permit and quota. This made it extremely difficult for a common man to live his common life without breaking one or other law. Hence, Corruption and black-market flourished.In summary, This is the story of every socialist country from 20th century russia to 21st century venezuela.