What is our Duty? Part 2

By Peter Worman

Last time we questioned what our duty is as human beings and this session we will look at what some traditions have to say about duty.

We’ll firstly set the scene by listing the essential duties attributed to a range of roles we play as humans. A Doctors duty is to heal his patients, a school child’s would be to obey their teacher and pay attention, a teacher’s duty to maintain order in the class and to impart knowledge.

An employee’s duty would be to provide their labour to their boss and to serve their customers. An employer’s duty would be to provide a cordial work environment for his staff and of course to pay them. Sadly, we largely ignore our duty, and this causes all sorts of problems in the world. For example, a businessman might see his primary duty as satisfying their shareholders or a doctor to make lots of money.

None of the above are wrong as such but the point is that when we lose sight of our true duty, things start unravelling. The dictionary meaning of duty is a moral or legal obligation, a responsibility. It carries the sense that it is something we aught to do and not what we feel like doing. In the Vedanta, a philosophy based on the doctrine of the Upanishads, they speak of Dharma which inter-alia means an individual’s duty fulfilled by observance of custom or law.

Let us look more closely at the Upanisads which literally means at the feet of or near to a teacher of spiritual knowledge. The first or Eesha Upanisad starts off by saying Whatever lives is full of the Lord. Claim nothing, enjoy and do not covert His property. Then hope for a hundred years of life doing your duty. No other way can prevent deeds from clinging, proud as you are of your human life. (we could spend days trying to work out exactly what is being said her but for the purposes of this talk we will focus on duty) Again, this mention of the word duty, so what is our primary duty? According to the Vedanta it is to follow our dharma and this means acting without cruelty, being honourable, dignified, noble, having respect for the wise, being self-disciplined and accomplished and lastly generous in spirit towards all. Simply put this would mean to live honestly and harm no one.

In the Christian tradition Jesus summed up our duty as to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and to love your neighbour as yourself. In the teachings of Plato he says we need to harm no one even if we ourselves are harmed and to never commit an injustice even if we have been treated unjustly. In other words, we need to turn the other cheek. To many this may sound cowardly or defeatist, but this kind of behaviour is imperative to living our lives happily and peacefully (bear in mind that wisdom is said to be the art of living truthfully and happily). This isn’t to say we should become completely passive and if the Truth is being overrun by evil, it is our duty to defend the Truth. However, this battle has its origins internally and is an inner battle with our selves. Plato says in his book Laws, civil war is raging within all of us. The countless wars that have plagued this planet since time immemorial are just an outer manifestation of this inner war.

The advice given above sounds great but how is this achieved? Firstly, one needs to come to the realization that duty is necessary and seek out a teacher who would guide to the realization of our true self. In other words, we need to set out on a path of self-discovery. Some traditions tell us that every human being, prior to taking on a human embodiment, promises to discover the finer laws of the creation, follow these laws, and find the way back to our spiritual home.

Thousands of years ago, the present India was called Āryāvarta. In those earlier times it was said: All men on earth should learn their own way of life from a Brāhmaṇa born in this region. The people here were ascetics, practicing austerities, they were worshippers, accomplished, perfected. Those born here within Āryāvarta taught the whole world, through their behaviour, through their character, through their speech. Then, the declaration here was: All be happy, all be without disease, none see sadness, meaning none be sad. This was the bhāvanā or inner attitude of the inhabitants of Ayāvarta, meaning that however many people there are in the creation, all should be happy, all be without disease, all see their well-being.

This sounds like a tall order and beyond the reach of normal human beings. But as they say each journey begins with the first step and that first step is to acknowledge that what we previously presumed was true might not be entirely true and that we in truth don’t really know and that we need help. Next time we will look at these systems on more depth.