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Gurcharan Das on the Difficulty of Being Good

What does one of India’s most eminent writers have to say about some truly global problems?

October 9, 2010

What does one of India's most eminent writers have to say about some truly global problems?

1. As you look across the globe, how would you describe many people’s frame of mind?

“People almost everywhere are caught in the grip of status anxiety.”

2. How does that manifest itself?

“We constantly worry about what others think about us.”

3. What can we do to combat that tendency?

“A friend’s mother had a very practical suggestion. She told him to stop worrying about what the others think about him — because they don’t, she said.”

4. Do you agree?

“I do. Just remember that everybody is quite busy worrying about what others might think about them.”

5. How about another universal insight?

“We all know that, if the sin of capitalism is greed, the sin of socialism is envy. But these two scourges can be closely related.”

6. Give me a concrete example.

“In the 1980s, Harvard conducted an experiment, asking people whether they would want a salary of $50,000 or $100,000. Most chose the latter option. But then something strange happened.”

7. What?

“When they were told that their friends would make $200,000 a year, they were asked whether they preferred to make just $50,000 — if their friends would only earn $25,000. And 83% changed their vote.”

8. With regard to India, how would you describe the country’s current mood?

“Prosperity is spreading as the middle class grows. But happiness is not.”

9. What else is of concern to you on the home front?

“In the past, we were justifiably proud of our institutions, but worried a great deal about poverty and growth. Now, it’s the other way around.”

10. How’s that?

“We’re doing quite well on the economy and poverty reduction, but we’re losing pride in our institutions.”

11. For example?

“Education is key for our future, as is the case in any nation. And our public school teachers are very well-paid. Yet, one in four teachers don’t show up for work.”

12. How could that be fixed?

“The easy way would be to fire just one of those teachers who don’t show up. All of the others would then be guaranteed to show up the next day for a change. Still, I doubt much would change. They still wouldn’t be motivated. It’s ultimately a problem of governance.”

13. And how could that be addressed?

“That’s a big question. India is a 21st century culture now, but our ancient traditions ought to help. In classical India, the right answers to moral dilemmas, unlike in the West, were not answered by God. Coming up with the right answer required individual reasoning to arrive at the proper ethical conclusions and solutions. That gives everybody a valuable place to start.”

Editor’s note: All the quotes in this Read My Lips have been drawn from Gurcharan Das’ “The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma,” published by Penguin Global on December 23, 2009.