Called To a Higher Duty

The Bhagavad Gita recognizes that there are various forms of duty, and that duty is defined for the most part by our relationship to the social order. We thus have varying duties to parents, family members, the society in which we live, etc. For the individual attempting to live a good and positive life in the world, following these duties on a consistent basis is the essence of morality and ethics.

At the same time, there are duties which can transcend those imposed by the social order. These can particularly arise from a growing moral sense or inner conviction based on an evolution of the individual’s consciousness. Sri Aurobindo describes some of these higher order duties: “…if the lawyer is awakened to the absolute sinfulness of falsehood, the judge becomes convinced that capital punishment is a crime against humanity, the man called upon to the battlefield feels, like the conscientious objector of today or as a Tolstoy would feel, that in no circumstances is it permissible to take human life any more than to eat human flesh…”

When this inner moral law comes in conflict with the outer law established by the relations of society, “…It is obvious that here the moral law which is above all relative duties must prevail; and that law depends on no social relation or conception of duty but on the awakened inner perception of man, the moral being.”

“The Gita does not teach us to subordinate the higher plane to the lower, it does not ask the awakened moral consciousness to slay itself on the altar of duty as a sacrifice and victim to the law of the social status. It calls us higher and not lower; from the conflict of the two planes it bids us ascent to a supreme poise above the mainly practical, above the purely ethical, to the Brahmic consciousness. It replaces the conception of social duty by a divine obligation. The subjection to external law gives place to a certain principle of inner self-determination of action proceeding by the soul’s freedom from the tangled law of works.”

The Gita represents a developing, undulating, manifold view of the relation of the awakened individual to the social order and the duties he is called upon to carry out. It requires patience to work through all the permutations to reach the final understanding which it expounds. The first step is the recognition of the conflicting duties and their sources. The next step is to reconcile them and find a way to act in accordance with the highest spiritual principle to guide our lives.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 4, The Core of the Teaching, pp. 31-32,