The Dharma Initiative

Gurcharan Das, author of the recently published book, The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma, is a public figure in India where he writes a weekly column in the Times of India and many other national newspapers. He was the CEO of Procter & Gamble India and studied Philosophy at Harvard College and later attended Harvard Business School. His other acclaimed nonfiction works include India Unbound, which has been made into a successful documentary by the British Broadcasting Corporation. In The Difficulty of Being Good, Das analyzes theoretically challenging issues in Indian governance, economic reforms, and the moral hazards of doing business in the subcontinent through the lens of one of India’s most venerated and ancient epics, the Mahabharata. By asking the difficult questions of dharma, a Sanskrit term interpreted variously as law, duty and even restraint, Das provides insights on how envy, remorse, forgiveness, and the overall ambiguity of the ethically-bound life impact our public and private selves. The Columbia Political Review sat down with Das to discuss his unique worldview.

Columbia Political Review: How relevant —or irrelevant—is the contextual approach to goodness/rectitude in today’s world? Does it give us too many “outs”— too many ways to explain away nebulous actions under the guise of contextual goodness? Is the Indian bureaucrat (say we’re paying him too little) who takes bribes less bad than any other bureaucrat in any other part of the world?

Gurcharan Das: It’s not an income issue. No, if he takes a bribe he’s a crook and he deserves to be in jail, so there’s no question of ifs and buts. There is a tradition also; if you see how the Mahabharata talks about the king and his officials in Book 12, it makes it very clear that there are actions of the king, that if they help people, then they are dharma and if they do not, they are adharma [an antonym for dharma]. The only thing is that it’s not easy to acknowledge sometimes, that there are constantly conflicts between duties that we face… and this is in the Mahabharata itself. At one point, for example, this good man, a sage, Kaushik, is standing at a crossroads and he knows that a man has witnessed a robbery and the man who witnesses it runs past him to one end and the robbers are running after him and they say, “Where did he go?” They were going to kill him because he was a witness, so he tells them where that man went, and then he ends up in hell, and so he says, “I was a good man, I always spoke the truth,” and they explained to him, that, “you idiot,” that “your first duty was to ahimsa—to save that man’s life, to protect him—rather than to tell the truth.”

So this is what the Mahabharata is forcing us to confront all the time about the problems of right and wrong and very often there are no easy answers.

CPR: You’ve said that, “socialism destroys the human character far more than capitalism.” What do you find particularly adharmic in socialism?

GD: Well, India Unbound is the story of the adharma of socialism, meaning, that for anything you wanted to do, you needed a license and you needed to bribe somebody… There’s an instant feedback mechanism in capitalism, which makes it dharmic. That is to say that, if you go to the market to buy mangoes and the mango seller claims that they are good and they turn out to be bad, well then you immediately punish him by going next time to his competitor. And similarly if you mistreat employees, good people will not join you and no business can succeed with one man, it needs the collaboration of hundreds of employees. And if you try to squeeze your supplier too hard on the price, as businessmen are tempted to do, you’ll get a defective component which will harm you at the end, not the supplier. And this partly the dharma of capitalism. It’s based on trust, that if I give you a check, and you accept it because you trust that I have the money in the bank and that the bank will honor the check, and so the whole system works on the basis of trust. So in built in the notion of dharma is not just self-interest, it’s the notion of doing the right thing. I mean, imagine if there was no trust, how difficult it would be. Everyone would have to carry cash, we may have to go back to bartering even.

CPR: In the 1990s, Azim Premji and Narayana Murthy made billions and yet lived their lives with a Gandhian simplicity that belied their wealth. In the 2000s, the press covered Mukesh Ambani’s 27-floor skyscraper mansion in Mumbai. Is material asceticism in India a thing of the past? Is the pursuit of artha (wealth) the new Indian ideal?

GD: That is an easy characterization, too simplistic in a way. The fact is that while maybe a few examples like Narayana Murthy were there, I’m not sure that every entrepreneur was like that. In other words, I’m very shy to say that a change has taken place in particular because the reality is that capitalism is still trying to find a comfortable home in India. We would like the Mukesh Ambanis and all not to flaunt their wealth for the sake of the system, you know. It just gives more ammunition to the enemies of capitalism. I read somewhere that almost 9 percent of India’s direct and indirect taxes are paid by the Ambani companies together, and something like 7 to 8 percent of exports are accounted for by the Ambanis… and then there are the hundreds of thousands of jobs. So what if he’s a lunatic and wants to build a 20 story building for himself. What’s the harm? All I say is, the benefit is so huge— what I’m trying to say to you is that you talked about consumption—I think that’s where we started—that if a few people get rich and consume in offensive ways, then you know, we don’t particularly want to be friends with them, but it’s okay. It’s okay [laughs] because they’re doing a lot of good and, in the end, another aspect of the dharma of capitalism is represented by the Rockefellers and the Carnegies and the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets where if they give away most of their fortune before they die, which is the other part, philanthropy, which I believe is a very important part of the dharma of capitalism, then that’s fine.

CPR: So would you say the marginal benefit outweighs the marginal cost?

GD: You’re right… But I’m also talking of the moral dimension here. I mean, where does your duty lie for your children? We think that our job is to have children, bring them up, send them to good schools, and that’s it. Our job ends there. And we say they’re “settled.” We don’t need to give them a car each, a flat each, a company each… and my children are not very wealthy, whatever savings we have are going to go into charity, and it’s going to happen before I die and there we’ve done our bit for them by educating them well and seeing them “settled,” as we say in India.

CPR: Domestic consumption accounts to about 65 percent of India’s GDP, as compared to 58 percent for Europe and 42 percent for China. You’ve written that “consumption might be a virtue [that] embarrasses many Indians, with their ascetic streak.” How is it that India, as a nation that prides itself on its anti-materialistic religious/cultural heritage, got this way? Is India losing our culture as we gain wealth?

GD: You know, the ideals of non-materialism, priding ourselves on not being materialistic—these were always aspirational. The reality has always been different, in other words. Even the people who preached it, like the Buddha or the yogic teachers, the spiritual entrepreneurs as I’ve called them, recognized that. I think, obviously, we’re starting from a very low base in the sense that it [India] is a very poor country—that to even get the basic needs to be fulfilled will take a lot of consumption and so, to some extent, the high consumption levels reflect that. On the other hand, of course, the truth is that a lot of people get very rich in the process of development. In a free market society there will be a lot of conspicuous consumption, of showing to the Joneses that we are better. So all that will happen, we’ve seen that happen in every society as it turned out after the Industrial Revolution so there’s nothing unusual about it. I think that there’s something universal about it, about our habits; that’s what makes capitalism universal.

CPR: Envy is an emotion that surfaces time and again in the Mahabharata and you specifically analyze the way in which envy can be a motivating force driving people’s actions. In the India vsersus China narrative, where or how do you see envy playing a role in driving the two countries’ political and economic development?

GD: Well, remember I talked about envy being a good thing? It made Anil Ambani want to prove to the world that he was as good as his brother. He created some wonderful companies like Reliance Capital. So I think if envy, the right kind of envy, fires our ambitions as we see China creating wonderful infrastructure, that would be a very positive use of envy. On the other hand, you can also see the negative kind of envy occurring between India and Pakistan, where Pakistan is bent, not on trying to be as good as India, but in bringing India down, the way Duryodhana was to the Pandavas. He didn’t care how good he was, he just wanted the Pandavas to suffer. Envy can be a positive quality but mostly it’s very destructive… and it does play a very powerful role in public life as well.

CPR: In Foreign Affairs, you reflect that “although Indians blame ideology (and sometimes democracy) for their failings, the truth is that a mundane inability to implement policy—reflecting a bias for thought and against action—may have been even more damaging.” Many will say this is a direct consequence of the philosophical and historical legacy of the Mahabharata wherein the epic heroes agonize, question, and debate decisions, oftentimes in such poorly chosen places such as the battlefield whereas, as you mentioned yesterday, the Greek epic heroes just kind of get on with it. Is the Mahabharata, then, partly responsible for leaving India with a cultural legacy of debate and delay over action in governance?

GD: [laughs] What a wonderful question. I must tell you that this is true… that we often blame ideology and we constantly debate between the left and the right in India. Everything becomes a debate, and that’s important in a democracy, sure, you should get debate. That is why India is partly such a rich society because so many diverse points of view are always being expressed. But the downside of that is that when you should act, you don’t. So in this debate we have forgotten that in fact much of the governance issues that we debate about are issues of implementation.

The amazing contrast is really in the private sector where you’re building these private companies with fantastic implementation… and so we can see how private sector implementation is happening and how the public sector is now, and a lot of it is accountability. The market forces accountability on you because otherwise you just lose your customer, you can’t afford it. You don’t have time to debate. And so I think our discussions really ought to be about the how, rather than of the what. We all know the problems, the what, so let’s see how we can get our civil servants to perform.

For example, the how is: If you put your driver’s license renewal on the net, you’ll cut out a lot of the garbage of corruption—just as we did with railway tickets, by putting it on the Net. You don’t have to see anybody and your ticket comes directly to you. And so, e-governance is a very powerful way [to reduce corruption] if we took that very seriously, just as Nandan Nilekani’s unique identity number will force accountability on the system. You have to fight the vested interests, they will try to stop it. In Delhi they did try to computerize this renewal of driver’s licenses but the system forced it back to the current system because there were too many people making money so you see, you have to have a person out there who implements and says, no, we’re going to implement this, we’re going to do it. If you change the institutions, then people change very fast.

CPR: Is being “good” a good business strategy?

GD: Coming back to my book, most people think that to be good is not a good strategy—but ultimately the market depends on reputation. And similarly, which I tried to show in my book, that while it’s not a “how-to” book, and neither is the Mahabharata, there is room for forgiveness instead of retribution. I was very inspired because Yudhishtir at the end of the war forgives the Kauravas, he forgives Dhritarashtra and in fact makes him the titular head and he acts on his behalf. And the question you ask is, “My god, look at what he’s done, he’s vanquished his enemies and made the [enemy’s] father the head.” And I ask myself, is there room for more forgiveness in our society?

I wrote this open letter to Narendra Modi after he won his election in Gujurat in one of my columns in which I ask him, “Now that you’ve won the election, it’s in your own interest, if you want to be a player on the national stage, to get up there and say that the Hindus of Gujurat seek the forgiveness of Muslims, without admitting any guilt. The idea being that instead of going through the courts now as we are and seeking retribution, we simply forgive. Professor Jayesh Bandookwala—a Muslim leader—immediately responded the following week and said that the Muslims of Gujurat unilaterally ask the Hindus to forgive them for what happened at Godra. And I said, ”My God, this is wonderful.” Of course, Modi did not listen. Otherwise, if he had listened, we could have moved on. I mean it would have been difficult because when the victor asks for forgiveness, it’s a little different from when the vanquished does.

CPR: One of your concerns in your latest book is the modern relevance of adherence to dharma. You mention that, in the Mahabharata, societies may each have their own dharma and that the world is perceived as uneven, created by the flaws of human beings. How do we approach populations that conflict because they essentially appear to perceive dharma in different, often opposing, ways?

GD: I did a column when Benazir Bhutto died ... that there was a lot of grief [in Pakistan] when she died, but there was no remorse. Why is Pakistan a remorse-less society? Rahul Gandhi wrote me an email—this is all also in the book, in the chapter called Yudhistir’s Remorse—in which he said, “Let me try to illustrate perhaps, or let me try to explain why there was no remorse and only grief.” In my article I made the classical distinction that Bernard Williams makes between remorse and grief: If there are two people riding in a car—you’re driving and I’m sitting in the front seat- and a child gets run over and dies—you will feel remorse for the rest of your life, even though it was not your fault, but I as a passenger will just say, “That’s too bad.” I feel grief, but you will feel remorse. Now, Rahul Gandhi says that there was no remorse because remorse requires you to identify with the victim, the family of the victim, instinctively and immediately. And once you start identifying in that way, Rahul Gandhi says, you’re a democracy because democracies assume that people are equal in that sense, that we can identify with each other as being equal before the law. And so he says that you’re idealistic in expecting remorse in Pakistan because unless Pakistan becomes a truly democratic society, you will not have remorse. I thought this was very, very astute, this comment that he made. And so I feel that right through the epic, the epic is making us look at ourselves in the mirror—and it’s showing us, making us uncomfortable, how we are deceiving ourselves, thinking we’re good when we’re not. But it’s also not preaching a goody-goody, you know, kind of moral morality, in fact, quite the contrary, it’s showing us in all our darkness. And also that there are no easy answers. It’s difficult to be good, and that’s the human condition.

CPR: In the wake of the financial crisis, many in the HBS [Harvard Business School] class of 2009 wrote and signed the “MBA oath,” a pledge to act responsibly and ethically in order to “serve the greater good.” At CBS [Columbia Business School], all students sign the honor code. Is this simply a defensive reaction to an angry populist environment that blames these MBAs for the current financial crisis, or do you think this is truly an ethical turning point in American business practices?

GD: Both may be to some extent, true. They’re forced into it because their reputation of business has suffered and on the other hand, if this crisis has made people aware in this way—if ethics courses in business schools are going to get full and if it’s a genuine change—I think it’s for the better. As in the Mahabharata, Arjuna’s dilemma of whether to fight or not is an example of how we would like our leaders to put the moral dimension in their calculation of the decision-making, and so we would like more and more business people to instinctively ask whether what could be the impact on the environment of what I do, what will be the impact on the community of what I do, and ultimately we want them to act like Yudhishtir sometimes, i.e., “I act because I must,” you know, because he just feels that’s the right way.

CPR: Do you think Obama’s administration could learn some lessons from the Mahabharata in being more forgiving [to the bankers] and not try to appeal to the populist sentiment that they shouldn’t even get their bonuses?

GD: It doesn’t seem like that’s the risk anymore. They are going to get their bonuses [laughs]. You know, this great disparity in compensation is a problem. Speaking now from the other side, reading the Mahabharata and thinking about dharma. You know the difference was 45 to 1 between CEO salaries and the lowest employee’s salary on the average in 1984. And today it’s 400 to 1, and more than that, maybe. I think, as we talk about that chapter on envy, a lot of compensation is fairly relative. It’s not based on your needs, and so there has to be a better solution than this.

Today compensation is fundamentally driven by envy. I’m on a number of boards—I’m on the compensation committee of a board—and when we give compensation to the CEO of this company, we ask, “OK, how much is that competitor company earning? Oh, he’s earning more? Well, we can’t have that.” And this starts this escalating race where people are comparing only with each other, and CEOs are not comparing the rest of society, they’re only comparing within themselves. There must be more than envy driving this process, I think. Not to say that the state should control salaries. We had that during the License Raj, and it was a disaster.