AM I really good? This is a question that has always bothered me. I think I am, and I am pretty sure the world I inhabit, on the whole, thinks so too. Basically, a good human being who wouldn’t harm another and if possible, would go out of my way to help someone.
Is that good enough? Or, does one need to apply more stringent, rigid standards? If so, I’m sure I’d win some, lose some. As I go through Gurcharan Das’ latest book, The Difficulty of Being Good, I am even more confused. The book examines the Mahabharata through an analysis of the one predominant characteristic — good or bad — of each of the epic’s characters. What is heartening is that all good characters in the epic seem confused too, at some point or other.
Yudhishthira is convinced he cannot declare war against his elders and brothers, but still does so; Arjuna is dead against killing his grandfather, his teacher and an unarmed Karna, and yet does it; Bhishma is goodness personified, but he doesn’t try to stop his grandchildren from attempting to disrobe the hapless Draupadi in court. He also leads the armies of one set of grandchildren against another!
Who can deny Lord Krishna’s goodness? And yet, at times we question the advice he gave Arjuna that led to the killing of his grandfather Bhishma, his teacher Drona and his brother Karna! Goodness, it seems, is confusing.
“I am good,” declared colleague Debasish with great confidence when I asked him. “I’m good because I try not to hurt anyone and because I try to follow the dictates of my inner voice.” Rashmi replied, “Yes, I am good because I try to be conscientious and do the right thing, though my definition of ‘right’ may change from time to time.” A kind of shifting goodness?
“Yes,” says Jyoti, “because my intentions are generally good and because it’s important to think positively of yourself, as that makes you capable of being positive.”
The self-effacing Anuradha was the first to say, “No, I’m not good. Though I do try to measure up to a moral science kind of ideal, I feel guilty when I fall short. In many situations, I find other people’s reactions more humane, with more feeling… I look at them and feel they are so much nicer than me. Are we good if we’re better than the next person?”
The most interesting response was Urvashi’s. “I think I am a good person because there have been people who’ve performed worse deeds than I have deeds I think I’m incapable of... And I don’t think I’m a good person because I’ve met people who are far better than I am — in their thoughts and deeds!”
Urvashi’s is by far the most realistic answer. Here’s someone who tries to be good, and yet leaves some scope by questioning her goodness and ideals. The goody-goody characters on television cant found the confusion. They are so good, so pure, so butter wouldn’ t - melt-in-their mouth that they are not just unbelievable, but actually irritating! They suffer vicissitudes and insults with never a word against those who persecute them. Their ‘nobility’ makes you squirm in your seat.
Now, why should goodness irritate? But truth is that too big a shot of goodness does arouse discomfort! All of us know at least one friend, aunt, cousin or even a parent or sibling who irritate with their saccharine goodness or obsession of self-sacrifice! They are so good that they seem Divine! Such people are an anachronism in today’s world! They set such high standards that they make us feel inadequate.
Mahabharata too has its moments of irritating goodness. Yudhishthira is calm and unmoved during the period of exile as Draupadi’s temper blazes. “Why be good?” she asks and “Why doesn’t your anger blaze?” His goodness at that point is irritating to his beloved wife and brothers, as enumerated by Gurcharan Das.
Eklavya cuts off his thumb and gifts it to Drona to ensure Arjuna has no equal. And Arjuna is reported be happy at this. My anger turns against Eklavya for following an instruction from a self-seeking and devious guru who had refused to accept him as a pupil because he was a low caste! Was it good of Eklavya to cut his thumb? I think not!
Then there’s the incident when Lord Indra dressed as an ascetic, demands Karna hand over his protective inborn armour and earrings. Knowing that handing over these will make him vulnerable, Karna still does so. Was it good of him? I don’t think so. The selfless Bhishma actually reveals the means of his self-destruction to the Pandavas as he is bound by an oath he gave them. Yudhisthira, the upholder of dharma exploits this.
Gurcharan Das says that Bhishma’s ethics of selfless detachment fails the day he fails to protect Draupadi and suggests that this may be the Mahabharata’s way of telling us that “even an exalted virtue like selflessness and commitment to disinterested performance of duty can get one into trouble!” The Mahabharata reminds us once again about the difficulty of being good.
Is it important to have some bit of vice because the bad instinct is inborn, a part of us? And goodness is the struggle against that instinct; we all achieve varying degrees of success and so are good in different ways. That’s human. And so Krishna is good, so are Yudhishthira and Arjuna. Their struggle against evil, their moments of weakness and their repentance make them so.
So then, are we saying that actually, it is the evil within us that makes us good? Just as without darkness, who would appreciate light? How can you be good if you have no shade of bad within you?