Knowledge Center

The Difficulty of Being Good

The drive to acquire power is hardwired into Homo Sapiens, especially the male of the species.  In this respect, we are quite similar to our closest ape relative, the chimpanzee.  The famous Dutch primatologist, Franz De Waal has written several books based on his observations of Chimpanzee groups in captivity and their power politics as well as the similarity with human power politics.

Unlike animals, human societies use cultural and moral teaching to regulate and contain both the raw drive to power itself, as well as the exercise of that power.  In India, this cultural and moral teaching has been carried out at a popular level through the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Both epics are set in ruling clans and highlight the importance of virtue and dharma in the exercise of power.  They seek to show what happens to a society when adharma prevails – when the powerful use all means necessary to get what they want, irrespective of the rightness of their actions.  In the Mahabharata, the Kauravastake the kingdom of the Pandavas through cunning and in the Ramayana, Ravana kidnaps the wife of a fellow King.  They also illustrate what is required to re-assert dharma viz the prevalence of a moral order.

The epics are different in their exploration of moral ambiguity and moral certainty in the exercise of power. Ramayana speaks for moral certainty in the form of Ram, the very embodiment of virtue and sets up the imaginary of Ram Rajya, a golden kingdom in which virtue lies at the heart of governance and the moral order. Whereas, the Mahabharata speaks for the moral ambiguity that sits at the heart of the exercise of power. The exercise of power requires you to fight battles and battles don’t have only clear-cut good outcomes.  Even Yudhishthira, the embodiment of virtue, isn’t spared the torment and consequences of moral ambiguity, when he confronts Yama the god of death.

How is this relevant today? I was reminded of this fundamental precept of our culture when I was watching the second season of Inside Edge.

For those who haven’t watched it, Inside Edge is a two-season series based on the IPL and it reveals (according to its author, a very watered-down version of) what actually happens behind the scenes at the IPL and in the highest corridors of cricket governance.  Inside Edge is entirely filled with power play, with characters switching sides all the time for personal gain and team owners plotting to win.  It shows the use of performance enhancing drugs, the intense pressure to win, having bid huge sums for each player, along with the ever-presentills of spot fixing, match fixing and betting.

The Kingpin and mastermind of match fixing and betting is shown to be none other than the President of the Cricket Association, a man of over-weaning ambition to make India the most powerful country in world cricket and to take cricket beyond the commonwealth to become a world sport.  He is shown as a man who will stop at nothing and can’t be stopped by anyone, in the realization of his ambition.  He is even willing to send his innocent daughter to jail, as an owner of a team caught in a match fixing scandal, while he goes scot-free and gets re-elected as the President of the Cricket Association.

The script writers make him speak about the moral ambiguity involved in acquiring and exercising power.  He states that the rules and moral codes for regulating and containing the exercise of power are made by the men and women who rule, but these are only applicable to the ruled.  Rulers live in their own world of power where these rules don’t apply.  In that world, it is not possible to know with certainty what is right and what is wrong.  The only truths that govern the experience of power is that it is an insatiable drive and only the toughest, the most ruthless and the most cunning can last for long.  Each of the central characters is also shown grappling with his conscience, especially those who love the game, yet their choices are morally ambiguous too, with no clear-cut position on what is right and what is wrong.  Inside Edge is finally, a contemporary take on the Mahabharata’s central question regarding the moral ambiguity of power.Interestingly, gambling and betting are at the centre of this narrative too.

On the other hand, we have recent movies starring Rajnikant such as Kaala and Kabali.

In these films, the central characters are warriors and rulers, men who fight on behalf of their people, the Tamil people in foreign lands, be it Malaysia or Mumbai/Dharavi.  In these films, there is no moral ambiguity in the exercise of power by the Ruler.  The Ruler is benevolent, the good King, who cares for the well-being of his people and who will fight to the end, using whatever means required to protect them from injustice and exploitation meted out by the non-Tamils.  There is complete moral certainty in the vanquishing of evil outsiders by the good Tamil warriors, led by their good King.

What are we to make of these two contemporary, yet age-old stances on the exercise of power?To my mind, it is the difference between being an aggressor and a defender.  Defence of the people is a situation of moral certainty in the exercise of power; it is unambiguously the duty and responsibility of the Ruler and by definition, a virtuous act.

However, imperialistic ambition and conquest, acts of aggression are a morally ambiguous exercise of power.  To conquer others, the imperialist has to do many morally questionable acts.  That’s why Imperialists need to couch their personal pursuit of power and wealth in the language of the moral imperative.

For e.g. during the colonial period, Europeans and the British put out the narrative that they were acting in the service of their Christian God; converting the pagans and civilizing the natives.  In the series, Inside Edge, Bhai Saab, the Kingpin, justifies his acts as contributing to the economic upliftment of the lowest level of workers in the organization and in raising the game of cricket to a different level of public engagement.  He is the man with the vision and the power to bring about change in line with his vision.

Gurcharan Das in his book The Difficulty of Being Good, explored the challenges of Dharmic Living as explored in our epics.  He too concurred with the authors of the epics with the difficulty of exercising power in ways that are clearly and only ‘righteous’.

I believe that our understanding of power goes a long way to explain, why we as a society are unable to create rule-based institutions, as prevalent in Anglo-Saxon cultures and why we rely, in the end, on division of spoils as negotiated by Clan Rulers and are intensely loyal and devoted to them.