The Theosophical Forum – March 1941

DUTY — Hannah Berman

"Stern daughter of the voice of God," is Wordsworth's definition of Duty.

It would be hard to find a word which is more misused, more misrepresented and made more of an opportunist than the word "duty." In the dictionary of conduct its definition is legion. It can be made to fit so many different gaps and lapses and promises unfulfilled. Actually it is almost impossible to define it sufficiently clearly and satisfactorily to fit all cases. Duty itself is related to the spiritual part of man's make-up and is so wrapped around with impulses and so dissected by mind and intellect that its definition becomes an individual matter and varies accordingly. Of course, on broad lines — very broad lines, it can be defined. Shelley calls it:

The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow.

But that definition, though utterly beautiful, is not plain enough for the plain man. A study of Theosophy gives not one but many clues to the real meaning of the word. Here one finds that duty is very closely related to the doctrine of Karman, the law of cause and effect. The whole realm of nature is so ordered that nothing happens by "accident." Everything fits into a pattern like pieces into a jig-saw puzzle and follows a natural sequence. The smallest piece has its own place and can make or mar the perfection of the finished pattern. So in the pattern of Nature and the Universe. "Thou canst not stir a flower without the troubling of a star."

We must inevitably reap what we sow unless we make some definite individual effort to deflect the stream of events. "We make today our chances for tomorrow." We are our own destiny! Where, then, amidst all this comes "duty?"

First, Theosophy answers, lies duty to humanity; then like concentric circles, come duty to race, to country, to family, and lastly to self.

The difficulty lies in reconciling all these apparently different duties and making them fit into each other. Very often duties seem to be conflicting and then it is a test for the individual to work out the problem for himself.

Theosophy is full of wisdom and guidance to those who seek these ideals and will always point out the way when other standards fail.

The test of any ideas or ideals in the realm of good or not good is their universality. If this thought is really understood it is a great help on the way towards working out the definition of duty. From Light on the Path comes a seemingly paradoxical statement:

Desire only that which is within you.
Desire only that which is beyond you.

seemingly contradictory, but not really so. Men must always strive for that which seems out of reach, but which is within them and always beyond them because there is no end to the striving. "The ideal must always exceed the real or what's a heaven for?" Duty must never be allowed to become a rigid unlovely thing; because the moment it does so, it loses the bloom of its inspiration. Then what looks like duty is actually a hard, unrelenting, obstinate and always unwilling service. Real loving service done in a spirit of brotherhood is real duty and it is always a beautiful ideal to follow. Sometimes it falls to one's lot to carry out a duty which is repellent and which appears to contradict all one's ideas and ideals. In this case one has to dig deep and look searchingly "within" and "beyond" and view the matter impersonally before one can decide where duty lies. One might have to perform loathsome tasks; but looking beyond the farthest horizon through black clouds of doubt and horror one can see the gleam of sunshine ahead and know that the only thing to do is the duty that lies nearest. The quintessence of the meaning of duty lies in the concluding words of the poet:

Give unto me, made lowly wise
The spirit of self sacrifice.

or in the words of The Voice of the Silence:

To live to benefit mankind is the first step.
To practise the six glorious virtues is the second.

Theosophical University Press Online Edition