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I remember reading the epic as a kid, as part of the curriculum in school, wondering what I was supposed to learn from it. I couldn’t quite figure out what it had to say in the end, if there was a moral of the story I was missing. All I took away from it at that point was that there were a few good guys and a bunch of bad guys, who happened to be brothers. They ended up on opposite sides in a war for the throne. Eventually, the good guys won, albeit by cheating.

Now, that is no summary of the magnificent story, but an idea of how it was imprinted in my mind. The way it was taught in schools, there was a clear division between the good and the bad and yet if you read closely, you could see that the good people weren’t so good after all. Every character in the story had shades of grey and yet the Pandavas earned respect while the Kauravas were vilified.

Today, after all this time, reading ‘The Difficulty of Being Good’ by Gurcharan Das, I could see what I was missing. The book explores what ‘Dharma’ means in today’s world and what the Mahabharata had to say about it. It brilliantly revisits the epic and delving into individual traits of the primary characters, explores what it takes to be good in a world that is inherently bad.

The Mahabharata profoundly proclaims– “What is here, is everywhere. What is not here, is nowhere”, and does full justice to the statement. At no point does it try to explain away any of the character’s actions to blind faith, making it anything but a religious document. At every stage of the story, the author (a secular, himself) observes, the epic takes time to dwell upon the implications of the characters’ actions and resists the urge to pass moral judgements. It neither glorifies its heroes, nor does it put down the losers. The most important lesson it has for us is to follow one’s ‘dharma’ (loosely translated, it means an “ideal version of ones’ own character”) and to be compassionate, which is what ultimately leads the central character to heaven.

Definitely worth a read, with or without judgements!

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