The principal message of the Gita is not how duty should be performed, but which duty should be performed in case of conflicting duties. The duty that the Gita tells us to select is the divine duty.
No such general thing as duty exists; we have only duties, often in conflict with each other, and these are determined by our environment, our social relations, our external status in life.SRI AUROBINDO (The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 260)
The connotation of duty in English is a little different from that of the corresponding words kartavya (Sanskrit, Hindi) and farz (Urdu). In Indian languages, the words corresponding to duty have a sacred connotation. Therefore it is implied that one is happy to do his duty. That is why, when somebody thanks us for something we have done, it is polite to respond by saying, “Yeh to mera farz hai” (It is my duty). In contrast, in English, ‘duty’ has the connotation of compulsion. Duty is something we do, not necessarily because we enjoy doing it, but because we are supposed to do it irrespective of how we feel about it. That is why, in English, it is impolite to say, “It is my duty,” because it may convey to the other person that I did it because I had no choice. Therefore, in English, the feeling with which we did the duty has to be further qualified by saying, “I was pleased/happy/delighted to do it.”
However, irrespective of language and culture, it is universally agreed that duty should be done without consideration of personal gain or loss. This is what we call disinterested (nishkaam) performance of duty. Disinterested performance of duty has often been considered to be the principal message of the Gita. The corresponding verse occurs in the second chapter of the Gita (2:47).
You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.Bhagvad Gita 2:47
If that is all that the Gita had to say, the remaining sixteen chapters were not necessary. Having said how a duty should be performed, the Gita goes on to tell us which duty should be performed in case of conflicting duties. For example, if a working woman’s child is sick, looking after the child is a duty, and going for work is also a duty. She can’t do both. In such cases, the Gita provides guidance on which duty should be done.
Among all the duties, such as official, social, family, legal, patriotic, moral, there is one which is the divine duty. According to the Gita, it is the duty that is the divine duty that should be selected. How do we know which of our conflicting duties is the divine one? Based on the Gita, Sri Aurobindo has resolved this dilemma into a series of questions that must be answered honestly to get the answer.
Which is the duty that is based on egoistic considerations? Which is the duty that will affect us in terms of worldly gain or loss? Which is the duty that expresses our divine love? Which is the duty that will leave us in lasting mental peace?
- Which duty is based on egoistic considerations?
- Which duty affects us in terms of worldly gain or loss?
- Which duty expresses our divine love?
- Which duty leaves us in lasting mental peace?
The duty for which the answer to the first two questions is ‘no’ and to the last two questions, ‘yes’, is divine duty. In other words, divine duty is one which is performed irrespective of egoistic considerations and those of worldly gain or loss; one which expresses universal and unconditional love without expecting anything in return; and the performance of which will leave us in lasting mental peace. The crucial question is the last one because the human mind is so versatile that we may be able to convince ourselves that the duty chosen is irrespective of our ego, we are not bothered about gain or loss, and that the duty expresses our love. But somewhere deep inside that if we attend to the duty that we have chosen, we will feel uneasy within; if not now, later; maybe on our death bed, if not earlier. If the selected duty will haunt us, it is not the divine duty. Performance of divine duty leaves us in lasting mental peace, and somewhere deep within, we know it.
An example here may help. During the Second World War, there was in Lithuania a Japanese diplomat, Sugihara. One morning he found thousands of Jews outside the embassy. On making inquiries, he discovered that they all wanted visas for Japan. If they did not get the permits, they might all die at the hands of Hitler. Sugihara sent a message to his country asking for permission to issue the visas; the reply was no. He sent the same message repeatedly, and every time the answer was ‘no’. As a government servant, his duty was to follow the instructions of his government. But somewhere deep within, he knew that if he did not give them visas, he would not be at peace. He decided to go ahead and issue them, and by doing so, saved the lives of thousands of Jews. He faced the music that followed, and he lost his job. He knew the risk that he was taking, but to him, lasting inner peace was more important than worldly loss or gain. He selected the duty, which expressed his love for human beings, who happened to be Jews. In short, he did his divine duty. The performance of divine duty raises our level of consciousness, which is the purpose of human existence.
Dr. Ramesh Bijlani is a medical doctor, educationist, writer, inspirational speaker, teacher, scientist, and above all a person committed to using his unique blend of talents for touching the hearts and lives of his fellow beings. Dr. Bijlani describes himself as a pharmacist who dispenses small doses of love and wisdom from the inexhaustible pharmacy of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.