The Philosophy of the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 6: The Meaning of Duty

The reply of Sri Krishna to Arjuna’s questions comes from various levels—the social, the personal, the cosmical and, ultimately, the spiritual. A problem has to be tackled in every way, because our difficulties arise from the depths of our being. No difficulty belongs merely to one side of our life, just as a disease has a root in the layers which are beneath the mere physical. Interpreters of scriptures and students of philosophy are asked to take into consideration all the possible aspects of a particular situation, even if it be a commonplace event. A little event is a cosmical event, though it may be a very insignificant, meaningless something for common perception. But a thing is not so redundant as it may appear on the surface. The universe is awake at the birth of every event. That is why we are told that there is no such thing as a secret in this world; everything is public, open and common. An event has to be viewed from various angles of vision. Mostly, we are inclined to study things in a one-sided manner. We study themes, for example, from the political context, and interpret them only from that viewpoint, as if there is nothing else about things. Students of sociology and psychology, again, think only from their points of view. There are others, who are the religious people, who interpret everything theologically, and so on.

There is an objective universe, no doubt. The world appears to be outside us, and the objectivity of the event is also something that has to be taken into consideration. But we, as subjects, take part in the event that appears to be objective. Inasmuch as we, as subjects, participate in the objectivity of the event, there is also a subjective aspect of the event. So, no event or circumstance is wholly objective, nor can it be said to be wholly subjective. There is an intermingling of the outer and the inner, the objective and the subjective in the occurrence of any event. There is also a transcendent meaning inherent in the occurrence of anything. It is not merely the world and the individual that react upon each other, there is a final deciding factor which requires the objective and the subjective aspects to react in that manner. Often, we call this transcendence the Will of God. There is also the social side of it, because an event occurs in a social atmosphere. By society we need not necessarily mean a group of human beings. Society, in general, is an organised order, whether it is human or otherwise. And an event that occurs in an organised atmosphere has the impact of this organisation, whatever that organisation be—it may be a family, an institution, or the entire mankind.

There are many other aspects which will be gradually revealed through the course of the chapters of the Bhagavadgita. Arjuna, as the representative man, the specimen of a disciple, is admonished by the great example of the teacher, Sri Krishna. It is, no doubt, true that every human individual, Arjuna or whoever it is, is in a social atmosphere, and to argue on a basis which has absolutely no relevance to society would not be a completely valid procedure. Though it is true that a purely sociological argument is also not complete, because there are other aspects to it, yet, initially, we speak as social units. Rarely do we imagine that we belong to the vaster physical nature. Only in the philosophy classrooms may we be thinking in this manner, perhaps, but in our work-a-day life we imagine that we are human beings living in a human society concerned only with human relations. We are not so much bothered about the five elements.

The sociological argument is the primary argument, the initial step. Have we a duty to human society? One cannot say, “I have no duty. I am the soul, the Atman, a consciousness that is immortal, eternal, infinite.” This would be a fallacious argument, because here we are trying to inject a metaphysical level into a social atmosphere, which should not be done as long as one is obviously aware of the fact that the social atmosphere is a reality. When the reality of social relationship has vanished like mist before the sun, and we cannot see it with our eyes, then, may be, we need not take it into consideration in the judgement of anything. Anything that we are compelled to recognise as a reality cannot be ignored when any argument is put forth. And what human on earth can affirm that one does not belong to human society and that social laws do not operate?

Arjuna was certainly a social being, and every human being, normally speaking, is a social unit. Inasmuch as we are conscious of our being in human society and there is a give-and-take attitude of cooperation in this atmosphere of human society, we must be sure that we have fulfilled our obligations in the form of a co-operative activity in respect of society. We cannot expect facilities from society and then feel that we have no obligations in return. Let anyone think for himself or herself. Do you derive any benefit from social relations, from other human beings than yourself? If you are sure and honestly convinced that benefit accrues from outer society for your existence and continuance in this world, you have also to pay back the dues expected from you by society in return for the benefit that has been received by you from society. In a religious enthusiasm we cannot abrogate human society, as long as we are sure that there is such a thing as society and we are in it.

The other aspect is that we are an individual in a bodily encasement, and we have a duty towards ourselves, also. We cannot kill ourselves in the name of society, nor can we kill society for our own personal advantage. These are important things which one has to bear in mind in tackling any question. There are martyrs who destroy themselves in the name of something other than themselves. And there are others who convert society into a martyr to fulfil the demands of their own egoism. History is an example before us. Neither can we exploit society for ourselves, nor is the society expected to exploit us. We are not a stooge in the hands of social laws, we are not a puppet or a slice of human society, nor can we regard society as a slave or a means to our personal advantage or satisfaction. The role of importance that society plays in the rule of co-operative living, and the importance we too have in the context of this relationship, is all to be well considered.

But—a very important ‘but’ indeed—there is something more than all this. There is the universe which is not exhausted by human society. This world of Nature with its birds and beasts, rivers and mountains and the solar system is not unimportant. The adhibhautika jagat, or the world of Nature, externally visible to us, in which we are located, is not in any way less significant than human society or our own personal individuality. We are expected to co-operate and collaborate with the world of Nature in as efficient a manner and as dexterously as we are expected to perform the duty in respect of ourselves and human society.

There is a supreme duty that we owe to the Creator of the universe. The Atman within us is the symbol of the Absolute that is everywhere. So when people speak of Atma-sakshi and regard the innermost-self as the witness of all things, they bring God into the picture of the judgement of all things, He who sees everything with His millions of eyes. Just imagine how difficult it is to live in this world in a successful manner! All these aspects, of course, are to be borne in mind. These aspects mentioned are, as known in Sanskrit technical terminology, the adhiyajna level, the adhyatma level, the adhibhuta level and the adhidaiva level.

There is a fifth aspect which is generally not mentioned in the commentaries on scriptures. This is what is known as the adhidharma—the Law, the Righteousness of the Kingdom of God, as we generally call it. The Kingdom of God is the adhidaiva, the principal spiritual Reality. The righteousness thereof is the law that operates in the universe. The Vedas speak of this righteousness as the satya and the rita: the Absolute law and the cosmical operative law. As in the constitution of a democratic republic there is a super-departmental power vested with the President, while there is a departmental law operating through the Prime Minister, one not completely dissociated from the other and yet one having a significance of its own independent of the other, likewise, is the  satya and the  rita spoken of in the Vedas. The satya is the super-departmental Absolute principle, we may call it the basis of all law, and the way in which it operates in a particular context of creation is the rita. And one has to abide by this law. ‘Law’ has a vast connotation, not easy to comprehend, because it has various degrees of manifestation and action.

Sri Krishna, in his reply to Arjuna, refers to all these aspects, so that the answer of Krishna is a complete encounter to life. He does not leave anything unsaid, because the problem of Arjuna was a total problem and not something that arose from a side of his personality. We would ask what is meant by a ‘total’ problem. It is a difficulty that arises in the entirety of the personality—socially, physically, vitally, mentally and intellectually.

Earlier we made mention of the difficulties Arjuna had in his mind in respect of his duty towards human society. He was doubting the consequence that would follow from his engagement in the war. It would be destructive of all moral, social and ethical values; a sin, in a sense. But not merely that; Arjuna was in a worse condition, still. His whole personality was shattered. He was not thinking like a sane person at that moment. The organisation of the personality had given way completely; there was a tendency to disintegration of his individuality. He began to say, “Oh, my body is burning, my hands are trembling, my hair is standing on end, my head is reeling, my mind is unable to think, my reason has failed me.” And what remains in a man, then! Everything is gone. He lost control over everything that he had within himself, and everything that he was. All the five layers of his personality, or the koshas— theannamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya, anandamaya, the physical, vital, mental, intellectual and causal being—all things were shaken from their roots. It appeared that the very edifice was crumbling; and under those circumstances, what opinion could he express about anything? It was all a bungling, a fumbling and an erroneous viewpoint taken by him.

Such is the fate of a spiritual seeker, also. We are studying the Bhagavadgita as a spiritual gospel, a great torchlight before us in treading the path. It is intended principally for everyone as a seeker of God, for the salvation of spirit. It is not merely history that we are studying or a legend that we are recounting. It is clothed in imagery and mythology and epic magnificence, but its essence, the core and the kernel, is pure impersonal spirituality.

“So, Arjuna,” says Sri Krishna, “You have a duty towards human society, you have a duty to yourself, you have a duty to the world, you have a duty to the antaratman, the deepest Self within you which pervades the Cosmos.” Human society is based on mutual cooperation. We have what is known as the  varna, which is wrongly translated as ‘caste’ in modern times. As it is not caste but a classification of society, a better translation would be ‘class’ and not ‘caste’. The classes of society do not imply the category of inferior and superior. They imply, on the other hand, a necessity for cooperation on the part of every unit of this classification. There is a necessity to maintain oneself materially, economically. We know very well the importance of one’s economic existence. There is no need of a commentary on this. But what is economic life except production and consumption? So there is a necessity to work for the production of material and economic values for the sake of the consumption thereof, by which human beings sustain themselves materially, physically. We have to work hard for this, it means that.

Now, again, it does not mean that everyone will have to do the same work. The entire mankind would otherwise be concerned only with production of material goods as if there is nothing else of value in life. That is also not true; that would be a wrong interpretation of human history and society. There is an economic interpretation of human history nowadays, which is a misplacement of values. We are not merely bodies, we are not merely food-consumers, we are not just money-holders; we are something more, as we know very well, each one of us.

Apart from this necessity to live in an economic atmosphere so as to produce economic values, we have also the need for protection. The need for organisation and enactment of laws is the need we feel for a government of human society. At least the Contract Theory in political science accepts that the origin of government is in a mutual agreement and contract of people for protection of themselves in a particular manner. We have organised a government; we wanted it and have created it in a particular way for our own welfare. The government exists for the people. This function requires another class of people, apart from these who are the producers of consumable goods.

But, then, we cannot simply produce goods and keep them in a corner. There is a necessity to organise the transference of these economic values. In the beginning it was the barter system that prevailed in economic society; now we have currency, etc. Whatever it is, the principle behind exchange of money or goods implies the necessity for the movement of goods, which requires a third class of society to operate it.

And finally, the most important thing which cannot be missed in our activity towards these obvious visible ends, the most important conditioning factor—the knowledge how to handle things—comes in. Whether it is the handling of administration, whether it is the handling of the atmosphere of production of material goods or the transference of goods, etc., we cannot have power without knowledge. One knows how dangerous it is to be vested with power and strength when one lacks in understanding, or knowledge.

So there are the four classes of people who have been specially endowed with this responsibility of conducting themselves in various levels of human society. Arjuna belonged to one class; and every one of us belongs to some class or other. If we will not perform the duties expected of us in that particular atmosphere or class in which we are placed, we would be derelicts, renegades, selfish persons who exploit people for the benefit of ourselves, and that should not be an example that we can properly set before others. It is a highly objectionable attitude.

“So Arjuna, even from a sociological point of view, you are mistaken in your notion of ‘I shall not act’. If everybody says ‘I will not do’, then what will happen? Is this the example you wish people to follow? Secondly, what has happened to your mind and intellect? How is it that you appear to be fumbling and falling off? Is this the way an integrated personality will speak? Are you healthy and sane in your personality? Will a wise person succumb to this catastrophic conclusion which you have arrived at just now, at this moment of crisis, here in this battlefield of Kurukshetra? What a pity, and a tragedy! Is this becoming of a hero like you? You have lost your personality. And you take that as the basis for your argument, which affects the human society also in which you are living. Society has sustained you, and you have a duty towards it.”

Now, we move further on. The world of Nature is that which highly conditions our experiences in life. Heat and cold, hunger and thirst are all processes which are engendered by the movements of the powers of Nature. We have to bear with fortitude the results that follow by our placement in an atmosphere of physical Nature. We should not say, “How horribly is it hot! How wretchedly is it cold! How stupidly is it raining”, etc. These are statements which convey no sense. Nature performs its duty regularly and perfectly, and our complaints arise because of our maladjustment with the way in which Nature works. Nature is an impersonal computer system. It does not go wrong. It sometimes appears to us that it is going wrong on account of our not understanding all that which is behind its workings.

The physical universe is also a reality which expects of us some duty. The pancha-maha-yajnas, as they are called in the system of living, in India particularly, are the obligations that we owe to the various sides of life: to human beings, to our ancestors, to the gods in heaven, to the sages of wisdom, and even to the beasts and animals. Much more than that, we seem to be connected with still greater realities. We owe a duty even to the planets and the Sun and the Moon. Traditional systems require us to offer prayer to the Sun every day. The Gayatri Mantra, which every religious person in India chants with reverence, is an offering of prayer to the mighty Sun, whose existence is our life. If we study the cultural and religious history of India in all its facets, we will be wonderstruck that life is nothing but yajna, sacrifice, service, cooperation, and it is self-abandonment that is taught in the culture of this country. Perhaps this is to be the essence of every culture that is truly humane.

We have duties, no rights in this world. This is something interesting. These days, people fight for rights and do not think that they have duties. “This I demand, and I owe nothing to you.” This is modern man’s argument. But true human culture says that we have duties, but no rights. One will be wondering what this is all about. “I have no rights?” Dear friends, rights will automatically follow without your asking for them. When you perform your duties, you need not demand your rights, they come spontaneously. “All these things shall be added unto you,” if you “first enter the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness.” Why do you cry for rights? Seek God and His righteousness, and then see if everything follows you or not. But we expect everything to follow us automatically without our doing anything for it. This is unbecoming. This is not going to lead us to success. So, Sri Krishna speaks: “You have a duty towards all things, and you cannot simply throw your bow and arrows and say, ‘I do nothing, I perish.’ You have no right even to perish, you must know that. You cannot hurt others, yes; but you cannot hurt yourself, too. Just as you cannot kill others, you cannot also kill yourself. Just as you cannot attack anything in hatred, you cannot attack yourself. There is sacredness and sanctity present everywhere, and reverence for life is the insignia of true culture.”

Arjuna forgot everything. He was completely down with fear, doubt and weakness of every type. At a particular stage in our spiritual pursuits, we find ourselves in this dark night of the soul, as the mystics speak of this condition. We cannot see anything in front of us. This plight does not befall us in the earlier stages of spiritual life, when everything seems bright as daylight. In the earlier days of spiritual practice, we think that everything is clear to our minds, and we can go ahead. But when we go half way, we see darkness ahead of us. It is all problem, difficulty and diffidence, and we begin to grope in darkness, in which condition Arjuna finds himself in the First Chapter of the Bhagavadgita. Inasmuch as this darkness is a precedent to illumination, a darkness that has risen on account of our persistence in the practice of true spiritual life, this specific condition of being in darkness and doubt is also called a ‘Yoga’. The First Chapter is called “Arjuna-Vishada-Yoga”, the Yoga of the dejection of the spirit of the seeker. This is also a part of ‘Yoga’. And everyone has to pass through this stage. But we should have the strength within us to realise that it is a transitory stage, and it is not going to be an all-in-all; it shall pass away. So, from the first stage of darkness and oblivion, Arjuna is lifted up to the enlightening message of the ‘Samkhya’, to which we shall refer now.