The idea of duty is different for different people, different countries, different cultures, and different religions. Hence the term ‘duty’ is impossible to clearly define. We have always been trained by society to consider certain acts as duty; some as good and others as bad. Duty and responsibility are totally different.
For example, it is our duty to help elderly people, to follow principles of truth, non-violence, non-stealing and such tenets. We are brought up with these concepts of morality, but have we experienced the beauty of implementing them?
When you actually take responsibility, Indra enters your hand; it becomes vajrāyudha. Yama enters your lungs; it means ‘not-stopping’. Lakṣhmi enters your heart; it means ‘continuously sharing’.
Then there are certain principles that get handed down depending on the religion we follow. For example, a starving person who finds a piece of meat has no problem eating it if he is a non-vegetarian. On the other hand, a vegetarian would feel it is his duty not to touch meat even if it means losing his life. These are all socially defined duties. Never judge the customs of other people by your standards. There is no common standard for the Universe.
What Kṛṣṇa talks about here is not socially defined duty or conscience. He is talking about responsibility, the leadership consciousness, the law of the cosmos. The Cosmos functions on responsibilism. The Cosmos does not believe in socialism, communism, capitalism, corporatism or any other ‘ism.’ The law of Cosmos and the natural law of Existence—dharma is not comparison based philosophy of communism, socialism, capitalism or corporatism. The law of the Cosmos is responsibilism.
You always measure the result of your responsibility based on the little money and the name and fame you get. That is where you fail. When you take responsibility, the higher energies start expressing through you. That is why I am asking you to not measure the results with your small logic. When you actually take responsibility, Indra enters your hand; it becomes vajrāyudha. Yama enters your lungs; it means ‘not-stopping’. Lakṣhmi enters your heart; it means ‘continuously sharing’. Kubera enters your liver and kidney, keeping the whole thing alive; Mārut, Agnī, Mārīci, all of them enter your intestine, burning anything that is offered and keeping the whole system active and alive!
When you take responsibility, when you start expressing authenticity, you get a thousand times more benefit than what you calculate through your small logic. When you start living with responsibility, not only will your monthly earnings move from two lakh to twenty lakh but you also build a space where you live in deathlessness. Your body gets built as you want. Your consciousness gets built beyond your body; you build a space of deathlessness.
Vivekananda talks about a sage, a yogi in India. He was a peculiar man. If you asked him a question, he would not answer. However, if you asked him a question and waited for some days, in the course of a conversation, he would bring up the subject and throw wonderful light on it. He once told Vivekananda the secret of work. ‘Let the end and the means be joined as one.’ When you are doing any work, do not think of anything beyond that. Do it as worship, as the highest worship, and devote all your energy to it for that time. The right performance of duty at any point in life, without attachment to the results, leads us to the highest realization.
The worker who is attached to results is the one who grumbles about the nature of the duty. To the unattached worker, all duties are equally good. He takes responsibility and welcomes what he has to do, irrespective of the external nature of the job. He approaches every act with the same enthusiasm and liveliness and becomes completely involved in the task at hand. He is authentic to his authenticity and does the action to his peak capability.
In the great epic Mahābharat, there are actually three versions of the Gītā: Bhagavad Gītā and Anugīta, both delivered by Śrī Kṛṣṇa; the third and equally important one is called Vyādha Gītā, the song of a butcher. A butcher delivered this Vyādha Gītā; a man who is considered as a low caste or a cāndāla delivered this great scripture.
There lived a great yogi who had special powers but was not yet enlightened. He was a highly egoistic person. He was meditating under a tree in a forest. A bird sitting on the tree relieved itself and the droppings fell on him. He lost his temper and he opened his eyes, staring at the bird. The bird was killed by the power of his gaze. The yogi was very proud of what he had done. He then went on his daily round of begging for alms. He came to a house and begged for food. The lady of the house called out from inside the house and asked him to wait as she was serving her husband. The yogi was upset. He thought to himself, ‘Foolish woman! She is serving her husband, an ordinary man, and she is making a great yogi like me wait!’
Suddenly he heard the lady’s voice again as if in answer, ‘I am not like the bird in the forest to be killed so easily. Your powers may be used against birds but not against me, so relax!’
The yogi was shocked! The lady actually knew not only what he was thinking, but even what had happened in the forest! The yogi apologized to the lady when she came out to give him food.
He asked her, ‘Mother, how did you know what I was thinking? And how did you know what happened in the forest? Please teach me how I can achieve this.’
She replied, ‘You have attained śakti (power) but not buddhi (intelligence). Go to the butcher who is down the road and he will teach you.’ Now the yogi was even more surprised. He thought, ‘How can ordinary butchers teach me anything about buddhi?’
But what the lady had done was too much for him. So he quietly took the lady’s counsel and went down the road to the butcher’s shop.
When he reached the butcher’s shop, he saw that the butcher was busy cutting up the meat of the animal he had just slaughtered.
He could not imagine learning from a butcher. But he wanted intelligence, so he approached the butcher and asked, ‘I was told by a lady living nearby to ask you about intelligence. Can you explain to me how to attain intelligence?’
The butcher explained how he himself had achieved intelligence, the ultimate experience. All he did to achieve it was do his job with complete awareness and total authenticity. He did his job with complete integrity and used the money that he earned to take care of his aged parents, which he did with equal devotion. Just the very doing of his responsibility had liberated him. The nature of his work, the act of slaughtering animals, was not important. The attitude, space from which he did it was what mattered. You may be doing the greatest acts of social service. But if the attitude, the energy behind the act is not out of completion, the action is just hypocritical and inauthentic.
In the Mahābhārat, Karṇa is a great warrior and close friend of Duryodhana; his acts of charity and generosity are much admired. He is the immaculate son of Surya, the Sun energy and the eldest son of Kuntī, the mother of Pāṇḍavas. Being born before Kuntī’s marriage to King Pānḍu, the unwed Kuntī abandoned him at birth. Karṇa lived as the adopted son of the royal charioteer of the Kurus, and struggled with misfortune throughout his life.
Karṇa’s famous charity was out of a deep incompletion and a feeling that he is not respected. What was Karṇa’s inner image, mamakāra? ‘I am a failure; I am not respected anywhere I go.’ This is because he did not know his parents’ names, his origins. So, his inner image, mamakāra at a young age was ‘I am not respected!’ So he was exploding with the outer image, ahaṁkāra—‘I have to be respected, I am respectable!’ And the best way to be respected was to do charity work. Even his charity came from incompletion. That is why his death itself was because of his charity.
See, at every level, he is destroyed by his acts of charity. First, Indra, the king of gods, comes and takes away his invincible protective shield and earrings, kavacha and kunḍala that he embodied from his birth as the son of Sun. At the end of Karṇa’s life, all his accumulated good karmas out of his charity stand as a shield and protect him. So Lord Kṛṣṇa, in order to liberate Karṇa, comes in the disguise of a poor brāhmaṇa and asks in alms all the good effects of his charity. You see, Karṇa might have done the charity work out of incompletion, but the people who received it were complete. So their blessings were protecting him. Foolishly, knowing that Kṛṣṇa Himself is asking him for alms, Karṇa thought, ‘I am giving even to Kṛṣṇa!’ Even the great acts like charity, when done out of incompletion, only lead to the wrong effect. Finally, because Karṇa no longer has the protection of his good karma, Arjuna is able to kill him. If you cause anything out of completion, what you get back will be miraculous. If you cause even a great charitable act out of incompletion, what you get back will be hell. Even the so-called moral, good deeds will only have bad effects.
Each of us is unique in our capabilities and interests. Accordingly, our responsibilities are different. If you try to imitate others, thinking their responsibility appears more attractive, you will be making the mistake of following somebody else’s path. Comparison literally rules our lives. When we use our energies with authenticity for our peak growth without comparing ourselves with others, we do our responsibility according to our nature. These verses on karma yoga by Kṛṣṇa have been misused by some to defend the caste or varṇa system in the Hindu tradition. They say what Kṛṣṇa means is that one should not swerve from one’s varṇa dharma, the duty of one’s caste. They do not understand the origin of the caste system.
In the vedic culture, a child was taken to a Gurukul, the ancient system of living, learning at the feet of Master, before the age of seven. The Guru taught the child based on his or her abilities. If the child had the aptitude to become a scholar he was trained in scriptures, and became a brāhmaṇa. If the child was aggressive and courageous, he was trained in martial arts, and became a kṣatriya, meaning warrior, and so on. Varṇa or caste classification was based on one’s natural abilities, not on birth. Over time, this practice degenerated into a classification based on heredity. One needs to understand Kṛṣṇa’s injunction in the vedic educational context.