Is Duty a Four-letter Word?

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The ideas of the Western philosopher Kant come close to the concept of dharma.

For some, duty is a dirty word—we want to do what we want to do. Period. To hell with duty. But let’s consider this more seriously: What is duty, and should I be concerned about it? Clearly, duty means different things to different people. And yet it’s not uncommon to wonder: What am I meant to do? Is there a reason I was put on this earth?

Duty is a term loosely applied to any action or course of action regarded as morally necessary, apart from personal likes and dislikes. From the theistic viewpoint, the ultimate duty is to God and our fellow man.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was among the West's many philosophers who wrote about duty. He called his system of thought "deontology," which literally means "the study of duty." One of the most important implications of deontology is that a person's behavior can be wrong even if it results in a positive outcome, and an act can be virtuous even if it results in a negative outcome. In contrast to consequentialism, a philosophy claiming “the ends justify the means,” deontology insists that how people achieve their goals is generally just as important as what those goals are.

In deontological moral systems, we have to understand what our moral duties are and what rules tend to regulate those duties. When we follow our duty, then, we are behaving morally. When we do not, we are behaving immorally. Usually, Kant admits, our duties, rules, and obligations are determined by God. Being moral is thus a matter of obeying God's laws, though in some cases people will have an inborn sense of right and wrong independent of belief in God.

These ideas correspond to the concept of dharma, which also focuses on various kinds of duty. The Vedic literature tells us that we have two kinds of God-given duty: temporary duties related to the body (varnashrama-dharma), and eternal duties coming from our inborn nature as eternal spirit souls (sanatana-dharma). In bhakti-yoga, duty is the chief characteristic and underlying motivation in vaidhi-bhakti, or regulated devotion to the Supreme Lord. Properly executed, vaidhi-bhakti leads to perfection in regulated devotional service and can also lead to raganuga-bhakti, or spontaneous devotion, which sets duty aside and revels in spontaneous love of God. Thus, dharma—or in Western terms, deontological practice—can lead to the ultimate goal of life.

What Exactly Is Dharma?

The word dharma comes from the Sanskrit root dhri, meaning “to support, hold up, or bear.” In common parlance dharma means faith, duty, divine law, the right way of living, or the path of righteousness, definitions with which Kant would be happy. But there's more to it than that. The derivative dhru, or dhruva, meaning “pole,” implies the balancing of extremes through an axis. Dharma thus refers to that invariable something at the center of existence that regulates change by not participating in it, by remaining constant. Ultimately, dharma is the central organizing principle of the cosmos; it supports and maintains all existence.

While the word dharma is sometimes translated as "religion," Prabhupada pointed out the mistake in that translation. "Religion" implies a person's faith, which may change, but dharma is the inner reality that makes a thing what it is. It is the dharma of the bee to make honey, of the cow to give milk, of the sun to shine, and of the river to flow. Dharma is a thing’s essence.

Varnashrama-dharma

While every living being’s sanatana-dharma (“eternal duty”) is service to God, in the material world such service plays out in a variety of ways according to each person’s psychophysical makeup. This is called sva-dharma, or one’s personal duty based on idiosyncratic inclination and body type. It is also called varnashrama-dharma.

The most well-known articulation of the varnashrama system (or at least the varna, or social duty, part of it) is found in the Bhagavad-gita (4.13). Here, Lord Krishna says that He created human society with four natural social classes, or varnas. He further explains that the specific religious duties prescribed for each social division allow for the most effective application of eternal religious principles in the material world.

The social orders are (1) brahmanas: intellectuals and priests; (2) kshatriyas: politicians, administrators, and warriors; (3) vaishyas: farmers, merchants, and bankers; and (4) shudras: laborers and artisans. People naturally fit into one of these occupational divisions, says Lord Krishna, in line with their qualifications and work. It should be emphasized that the original system was based on vocational aptitude and inclination, not on birth.

What we are talking about here are personality types. The brahmana, for example, has a priestly nature, contemplative and inclined toward study. He responds to goodness and is gentle and clean. His vision focuses upward, toward higher reality. The kshatriya, on the other hand, is the chivalrous, knightly type, and his concerns are generally more “this-worldly” than those of the brahmana. He leans toward action, and his powers of analysis are keen. He is characteristically noble, except when his passions get the better of him. His main focus is on getting things done, but with honor, virtue, and integrity.

Now, the vaishya, for his part, tends to be bound to material values because his life revolves around money. His motivation is security, prosperity, and economic stability, and it is difficult for him to see beyond these.

If the vaishya’s vision is somewhat limited, the shudra’s is still more compromised. He feels good only when he works hard at physical labor. He is a born assistant, not usually prone to original ideas. His life revolves around his physical work and immediate bodily pleasures, and he prefers routine to innovative thinking.

As should by now be apparent, these classifications apply to all human beings, not just to Hindus. Everyone has a natural inclination toward a particular kind of endeavor. And all endeavors fit into one of these four broad categories. Thus, the original social system as enunciated in theBhagavad-gita is intended for everyone, or at the very least it bears naturally on everyone’s life. It is thus a component of sanatana-dharma, or the eternal occupation of every soul.

The ashramas, or the second part of the varnashrama system, represent a four-tiered system of spirituality in which one is first a student (brahmachari), then gets married (grihastha), and eventually retires (vanaprastha) and renounces everything (sannyasa) in preparation for death. In many ways these may not sound like spiritual stations as such. Rather, they might seem like ordinary phases of life, playing out according to the passage of time, and indeed they are. Like the social orders enunciated by Krishna, the four spiritual orders can be found, to one degree or another, in diverse human cultures throughout the world. In all civilizations there are celibate religious people, married people who want to pursue higher spiritual values, people coming to grips with old age and the importance of renunciation, and people recognizing the inevitability of death, vowing to devote the remainder of their days to pursuing God consciousness and sharing it with others.

What is unique about the Vedic scriptures and their corollaries, however, is that here one finds guidance and models of behavior appropriate to each of the four ashramas, and these help one to evolve spiritually. One’s progress on the spiritual path can be tested by distinct behavioral patterns that reflect various levels of consciousness, and these too are outlined in the scriptures. Thus, while the basic form of varnashrama exists worldwide, Krishna conscious devotees teach that the system as conveyed in Vedic literature presents a structured method to achieve spiritual perfection.

Sanatana-dharma

As I mentioned before, dharma refers to that activity or function that cannot be changed. Heat and light, for example, are the dharma of fire; without heat and light, fire has no meaning. The dharma of the soul is to serve God. More specifically, that is our sanatana-dharma, or our eternal function irrespective of whatever body we may inhabit. In material consciousness we lose sight of our natural sanatana-dharma and become engaged in unnatural activity related to the body. Our original spiritual nature as a soul becomes dormant, temporarily replaced with a distorted nature, that of identifying with the body and its pains and pleasures. Sanatana-dharma is resumed only when the soul is placed in proximity to the spiritual element, such as God Himself (through prayer, chanting, deity worship, and so on), scripture, and pure devotees of the Lord.

Through such association, the true nature of the soul again becomes established, just as ice returns to its natural state as liquid when exposed to the gentle rays of the sun. This is Krishna conscious spirituality, whether one refers to it as Vaishnavism, as has been done for millennia in India, or by its more general name of sanatana-dharma.

Back to Kant

What would Kant say about all this? Well, as a Christian, he appreciated theological perspectives, and he tried to harmonize reason with belief in God. But Kant was big on what he called the “Categorical Imperative,” or universal truths that can be logically substantiated. It’s sort of a preliminary version of sanatana-dharma.

Additionally, or as part of the Categorical Imperative, he wanted his readers to ask themselves the following question: "Could I accept a world in which everyone behaves as I do?" According to Kant, this question should guide our sense of morals and ethics. In other words, if I act inappropriately, selfishly, my behavior infringes on the rights and liberties of others. Similarly, if I act selflessly, considering other people and the natural world around me, that serves the greater good; that is in everyone's better interest.

As devotees of Krishna, we see good reasoning in Kant's basic hypothesis: We recognize the benefits of a selfless life of God consciousness. If people would chant the names of God and refrain from meat-eating, illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling, the world would be a better place. If everyone accepted the nonsectarian principles of universal religion, sanatana-dharma, there would be no "us and them," no religious wars, no bickering based on identifying the body as the self.

Generally, the material world is the place where people act selfishly, focused on their own pleasure, creating an unworkable situation. A world in which we act as independent enjoyers, divorced from God, becomes a place of havoc. If the goal of life is unbridled pleasure, neighbors become commodities, valuable only as long as they bring us enjoyment.

Krishna consciousness says that the true Categorical Imperative is service to God. Whether we serve Him in an overarching, general way, in line with sanatana-dharma, or engage our predilections, as in the varnashrama system, service to God is a must. It is the essence of dharma and the highest duty. Indeed, this is a truth that Kant would never deny.

About the Author: 

Satyaraja Dasa

Satyaraja Dasa (Steven Rosen) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor of Back to Godhead magazine.