In the language of the Hindus duty is called Dharma, which means religion. The more one studies the nature and character of what we call duty, the more one begins to see that it is in the spirit of duty that the soul of religion is to be found. If duty was not so sacred as to play such an important part in one’s life, a form of religion would be nothing to a thoughtful soul. It was, therefore, wise on the part of the ancient people who called religion duty, or duty religion. For religion is not in performing a ceremony or a ritual; the true religion is the feeling or the sense of duty. Duty is not necessarily the purpose of life, but it is as the lighthouse in the port, which shows one, “Here is the landing place, here you arrive, here is your destination.” It may not be the final destination, but still in duty one finds a road which leads one to the purpose of life.
It seems that, though the knowledge of duty is acquired after a child has come into the world, yet the child has also brought with him into the world the sense of duty. And according to the sense of duty which the child shows, he gives promise of a good future. A person may be most learned, capable, qualified, powerful, influential, and yet if he has no sense of duty, you cannot rely upon him. As soon as you find out that there is a living sense of duty in a person, you at once feel confidence; you feel you can depend upon that person. And this feeling that you get is greater than any other impression a person could make upon you; in this is all virtue and strength and power and blessing. You value a friend whom you can trust; you value a relation in whom you can have confidence. Therefore, all the qualifications that man possesses seem to be on the surface, but beneath them there is one spirit which keeps them alive and makes them really valuable, and that spirit is the sense of duty. Those who have won the confidence of the whole nation, and there have been few in the history of the world who have won the trust of a multitude, those have proved to be really great; and it was accomplished by developing the sense of duty.
Now there are five different aspects in considering the question of duty.
- Duty Towards Children
One aspect is to think of our duty towards the generation; towards children, our own children and those of others. To those who are younger in years we have a certain duty. To our friends, our acquaintances who have not yet evolved enough to see things as we do, there is also our duty. And if once one were conscious of this, one would find many things in life which require one’s attention, and if they are overlooked one has really neglected one’s duty. Whatever be our position in life, rich or poor, we still have a kingdom, and that kingdom is our self. We can help and serve in thought and deed, in word or in action needed at a certain moment. By every attention given to this question, by everything done in this respect, however material it might seem outwardly, a religious action is performed.
- Duty Towards Fellow-Creatures
Another aspect of duty is the duty to our fellow-creatures; to one’s co-workers, to the friends and acquaintances with whom one comes in contact in everyday life, with whom one does not have the feeling of older or younger, or any difference. We have a duty towards them. In the first place, to study the psychology of their nature; if we have to teach them, not to teach them as a teacher; if we help them, not to help them as a benefactor; whatever help we give them, to do it in such a way that even we ourselves do not know about it. That is the best way of serving. For even to do good is most difficult if we do not know how to do it. If we were able to win the affection of our fellow-men and to do some little service unassumingly, without the thought of appreciation or return, we have certainly performed a religious action.
- Duty Towards Elders
The third aspect of duty is towards those advanced in years. To have sympathy for them, to have respect for their age, for the experience they have gained; even if they have not that qualification or learning which we have, it does not matter. Perhaps they know something more which we do not know. We cannot learn all things; we cannot know all things. There are things that experience teaches; there are things that age brings to them. If in a person, however intelligent and capable, that sentiment for age, that respect for his elder brother, that consideration for those who are advanced in years, his mother, father, brother or sister, teacher or friend, has not yet been born, he has not yet known religion. For in this is the foundation of religion.
It is said that a child of the Prophet one day called a slave by his name and the Prophet heard it. The first thing he said was, “My child, call him Uncle; he is advanced in age.”
Besides, there is a psychological action and reaction; those who have reached the ripened condition of life have arrived at a stage when their goodwill for the younger ones comes as a treasure, a living treasure. Sometimes the intoxication of life, one’s absorption in worldly activities, that ever-growing energy which one experiences in youth, one’s power and position and knowledge and capability, make one overlook this. But if an opportunity is lost, it is lost; it will never come again. We are all in this world travellers, and those near to us or those whom we see, they are the ones we meet on our journey. And therefore it is an opportunity of thinking of our duty towards them. Neither shall we be with them always, nor will they be with us. Life is a dream in which we are thrown, a dream which is ever-changing. Therefore an opportunity lost of considering our little obligations in our everyday life which form part of our duty, is like forgetting our religion.
- Duty Towards the State
The fourth aspect of duty is our duty to the state, to the nation, and to all those personalities whom we find therein, above or below; a king, a president, a commander, an officer, a secretary, clerk, porter, or servant; a spiritual source of upliftment, such as a church, a spiritual center and personalities connected with it, priest or clergyman; one’s counsellor or
teacher. Towards all these we have a duty, and in observing this alone we accomplish Dharma, our duty.
- Duty To God
And the fifth aspect of our duty is to God, our Creator, Sustainer, and the Forgiver of our shortcomings. One might say, “We have not desired to come here; why were we sent here?” But it is said in a moment of disturbance of mind. If the mind is still, if a person shows good sense he will say, “Even if there were nothing else given to me in life, to be allowed to live under the sun is the greatest privilege.” One says, “I toil and I earn money, and that is my living which I make. Who is to be given credit for it?” But it is not the money we eat; what we eat is not made in the bank. It is made by the sun and the moon and the stars and the earth and water, by nature which is living before us. If we had not air to breathe, we should die in a moment.
These gifts of nature which are before us, how can we be thankful enough for them? Besides, as a person develops spiritually he will see that it is not only his body that needs food, but also his mind, his heart, his soul; a food that this mechanical world cannot provide. It is the food that God alone can give, and it is therefore that we call God the Sustainer. Furthermore, at a time when there was neither strength in us nor sense enough to earn our livelihood, at that time our food was created. When one thinks of this, and when one realizes that every little creature, a germ or worm that no one ever notices, also receives its sustenance, then one begins to see that there is a Sustainer; and that Sustainer we find in God, and towards Him we have a duty.
In spite of the justice and injustice we see on the surface of this world, a keen insight into one’s own life will teach that there is no comparison between our faults and our good actions. The good actions, in comparison to our faults, are so few that if we were judged we should not have one mark to our credit. It does not mean that justice is absent there. It only means, what is behind law? Love. And what is love? God. And how do we see God’s love, in what form? In many forms; but the most beautiful form of the love-of God is His compassion, His divine forgiveness. Considering these things, we realize that we have a duty towards God.
It is these five different aspects of duty that, when we consider them and when we begin to live them, they begin to give us the sense of a religious life. Religious life does not mean living in a religious place or in a cemetery or in a church, a religion that is all outward. The true religion is living and being conscious of the sense of duty that we have towards man and towards God.
Someone may say, “How is it that a person who lives a life of duty, is often void of love, beauty, and poetry?” I do not think that duty has anything to do with depriving a person of love, harmony, and beauty. On the other hand, when the real spirit of duty wakens in a person, it is that which begins poetry. If there is a beautiful poem to be found, if there is anyone who has experienced love, harmony, and beauty, it is that person who understands the sense of duty.
For instance, a new-born child: he has come from heaven, he is as happy as the angels, he is beautiful in infancy, he is an expression of harmony, and he is love himself; and yet he does not know love, harmony, and beauty. Why? Because he does not yet know duty. But the moment the spirit of duty is wakened in a person poetry begins; and when poetry is begun, then love, harmony and beauty manifest to his view fully.
But one might ask, “Duty is responsibility; how can we be delivered from this great load of responsibility?” In two ways: he is already delivered of this load of responsibility who has no sense of responsibility. He does not want to take it up as his responsibility. He is quite happy; he does not mind what anybody thinks of him; he does not mind whom he hurts nor whom he harms; he minds his own business quite happily. He is delivered already.
And if there is another deliverance, it is attained by living the life of duty; it is by going through it. For going through it will raise a person higher and higher, till he rises above it, and he will be most thankful that he has gone through the path of duty, the sacred path of Dharma; for by this finally he has been able to arrive at a stage of realization in which alone is to be found the purpose of life.