In the midst of life's uncontrollable circumstances, scripture
advocates an attitude that is responsible and dutiful. Just as Synergy,
pp. 684-88, describes the conjunction of responsibility and grace, Duty
describes the conjunction of responsibility and destiny.
Admonitions to be responsible for one's own duty and station may
refer to the obligations of one's role in society, what in Hinduism is
called svadharma. By fulfilling the obligations incumbent upon one's
position, the entire social order is supported and the community as a
whole benefits. This is the case whether one's duty be a prince or a
janitor; every role is valuable in building the whole. One's obligations
are often proportionate to one's gifts and abilities, "to whom much is
given, will much be required." Similarly, on the path of spiritual
ascent, a person should not neglect his own welfare to compare himself to
others and envy those who progress faster. Even to be preoccupied with
helping others is flawed if done without regard to one's own spiritual
growth, for how can a person properly guide others to enlightenment when
his own soul is deep in ignorance? Our duty is to fulfill our individual
covenant with God. Duty to God should transcend the varying fortunes of
life; we should never seek to escape or avoid it. The example of Job
reminds us that even in difficulty we should willingly "drink from the
cup" which God has provided.
We then move to the ethics of fulfilling one's duty. To do one's
duty is a challenge, particularly when to shirk responsibility appears as
an inviting temptation. The ethical imperative of duty is a reliable
beacon for directing one's steps in the face of adversity or temptations
of worldly ease. In the Confucian doctrine of Rectification of Names, the
call to conform to one's station is a challenge in the sense that most
people stray far from the duties which their positions would properly
entail. In particular people in high positions are duty-bound to serve
the public and show compassion to those below them, but they rarely fulfil
this, being rulers in name but not in fact. Thus the ethic of fulfilling
one's duty is seen as the root of what is most honorable and noble in man.
The concluding passages reject fatalism and see in duty an opportunity for
action. Implicit is a distinction between the fetters of conventional
social duties and the higher duty to fulfil one's potential as a child of
There is not one of us but has his appointed position, and we are verily
ranged in ranks [for service].
Islam. Qur'an 37.164-65
Through your sojourn
in the world,
Know your station in life.
Know it well, you in the world,
Know it well.
Shinto. Moritake Arakida, One Hundred Poems about the World
For the sake of others' welfare, however great, let not one neglect one's
own welfare. Clearly perceiving one's own welfare, let one be intent on
one's own goal.
Buddhism. Dhammapada 166
By devotion to one's own particular duty, everyone can attain perfection.
Let me tell you how. By performing his own work, one worships the Creator
who dwells in every creature. Such worship brings that person to
It is better to perform one's own duties imperfectly than to master the
duties of another. By fulfilling the obligations he is born with, a
person never comes to grief. No one should abandon duties because he sees
defects in them.
One Hundred Poems about the World: This passage reflects the fusion of
Confucian and Shinto ideas in Japanese religion. The notion of 'station
in life' comes largely from the Confucian hierarchic system.
Every action, every activity, is surrounded by defects as a fire is
surrounded by smoke.
Hinduism. Bhagavad Gita 18.44-48
Leaving alone things which do not concern him is one of the good things in
a man's Islam.
Islam. Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi 12
If one does not perform duty to one whom the duty is due, one becomes a
thief of the duty.
Zoroastrianism. Avesta, Videvidad 4.1
Borrowed trousers and garments
Never fit a man well;
They are usually either too tight,
Or too loose.
Proper fitting is achieved
When one wears one's own dress.
African Traditional Relgions. Yoruba Proverb (Nigeria)
Let him not despise what he has received, nor should he live envying the
gains of others. The disciple who envies the gains of others does not
Though receiving but little, if a disciple does not despise his own gains,
even the gods praise such a one who is pure in livelihood and is not
Buddhism. Dhammapada 365-66
The little that one produces [oneself] with a broken hoe is better than
the plenty that another gives you.
African Traditional Religions. Buji Proverb (Nigeria)
You cannot use your hand to force the sun to set.
African Traditional Religions. Bette Proverb (Nigeria)
All appointments are from Heaven, even that of a janitor.
Judaism. Talmud, Baba Batra 91b
Bhagavad Gita 18.44-48: By 'defects' the Bhagavad Gita is defending the
imperfections of the caste system against Buddhist and Jain critiques. At
the same time, this is practical advice that can be applied to many of
life's situations. Dhammapada 365-66: On complaint and envy, see Bhagavad
Gita 3.31-32, p. 162. Bette Proverb: This means that you cannot succeed
in overstepping your position or seeking to do that for which you have no
A favorite saying of the rabbis of Jabneh was, I am God's creature and my
peasant neighbor is God's creature. My work is in the town and his work
is in the country. I rise early for my work and he rises early for his
work. Just as he does not presume to do my work, so I do not presume to
do his work. Will you say, I do much and he does little? We have
learned, One may do much or one may do little; it is all the same,
provided he directs his heart to Heaven.
Judaism. Talmud, Berakot 17a
Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required.
Christianity. Luke 12.48
He has raised you in ranks, some above others, that He may try you in the
gifts He has given you.
Islam. Qur'an 6.165
Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?
Christianity. John 18.11
In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider;
God made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out
anything that will be after him.
Judaism and Christianity. Ecclesiastes 7.14
Nanak, for man it is idle to ask for pleasure when suffering comes;
Pleasure and suffering are like robes which man must wear as they come.
Where arguing is of no avail, it is best to be contented.
Sikhism. Adi Granth, Var Majh, M.1, p. 149
I go out at the north gate,
With my heart full of sorrow.
Straitened am I and poor,
And no one takes knowledge of my distress.
So it is! Heaven has done it;--
What then shall I say?
Confucianism. Book of Songs, Ode 40
Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and afflicted Job with
loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And
he took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.
Then his wife said to him, "Do you still hold fast to your integrity?
Curse God, and die." But he said to her, "You speak as one of the foolish
women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we
not receive evil?"
Judaism and Christianity. Job 2.9-10
All a gentleman can do in starting an enterprise is to leave behind a
tradition which can be carried on. Heaven alone can grant success.
Confucianism. Mencius I.B.14
When one follows unswervingly the path of virtue it is not to win
advancement. When one invariably keeps one's word it is not to establish
the rectitude of one's actions. A gentleman merely follows the norm and
awaits his destiny.
Confucianism. Mencius VII.B.33
It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to
desist from it; if you have studied much Torah, much reward will be given
you; for faithful is your Employer to pay you the wages for your labor.
Know that the grant of reward to the righteous will be in the time to
Judaism. Abot 2.21
Duke Ching of Ch'i asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied
saying, Let the prince be a prince, the minister a minister, the father a
father, and the son a son." The Duke said, "How true! For indeed, when
the prince is not a prince, the minister not a minister, the father not a
father, the son not a son, one may have a dish of millet in front of one
and yet not know if one will live to eat it.
Confucianism. Analects 12.11
He who does not fulfil his duty is not respected by honest men. It
is how he acts that reveals the nobility or baseness of a man and
distinguishes the honest or the dishonest person; otherwise the ignoble
would resemble the noble, and he who is devoid of honor would resemble a
man of integrity; he who is unworthy would be deemed worthy and he who is
depraved would be considered to be a man of virtue. If, under the pretext
of duty, I adopt this unrighteous course, calculated to produce the
confusion of social roles [castes], and do acts not recognized by the
scriptures, I should, renouncing good, have to reap evil only! What
sensible man, able to discern what is just and unjust, would respect me in
this world, if I behaved viciously and dishonorably?...
Duty, the essence of which is truth, is said to be the root of all
in this world; it is truth that is the support of duty; everything has
truth as its basis; there is nothing greater than the truth. Offerings,
sacrifices, libations, mortifications, asceticism, and the Vedas all have
truth as their foundation; therefore truth is before all. Alone it
supports the world, alone it supports the family; its non-observance sends
one to hell; it alone is exalted in heaven. Why should I not fulfil the
command of my father, who was a devotee of truth? Neither ambition,
forgetfulness, nor pride would cause me to destroy the bridge of morality!
Hinduism. Ramayana, Ayodhya Kanda 109
Job 2.9-10: In this story, Satan is acting only on God's permission, so
Job's evil plight is ultimately due to the hand of God. See Job 1.6-12,
p. 442n. Analects 12.11: This passage gives the Confucian doctrine of
Rectification of Names. Cf. Mencius I.B.8, p. 1085; II.B.4, p. 1042.
The moral man conforms himself to his life circumstances; he does
not desire anything outside his position. Finding himself in a position
of wealth and honor, he lives as becomes one living in a position of
wealth and honor. Finding himself in a position of poverty and humble
circumstances, he lives as becomes one living in a position of poverty and
humble circumstances. Finding himself in uncivilized countries, he lives
as becomes one living in uncivilized countries. Finding himself in
circumstances of danger and difficulty, he acts according to what is
required of a man under such circumstances. In one word, the moral man
can find himself in no situation in life in which he is not master of
In high position he does not domineer over his subordinates. In a
subordinate position he does not court the favors of his superiors. He
puts in order his own personal conduct and seeks nothing from others;
hence he has no complaint to make. He complains not against God, nor
rails against men.
Thus it is that the moral man lives out the even tenor of his life,
calmly waiting for the appointment of God, whereas the vulgar person takes
to dangerous courses, expecting the uncertain chances of luck.
Confucianism. Doctrine of the Mean 14
Tzu-kao, Duke of She, who was being sent on a mission to Ch'i,
consulted Confucius. "The king is sending me on a very important mission.
Ch'i will probably treat me with great honor but will be in no hurry to do
anything more. Even a commoner cannot be forced to act, much less one of
the feudal lords. I am very worried about it...."
Confucius said, "In the world, there are two great decrees: one is
fate and the other is duty. That a son should love his parent is
fate--you cannot erase this from his heart. That a subject should serve
his ruler is duty--there is no place he can go and be without his ruler,
no place he can escape to between heaven and earth. These are called the
great decrees. Therefore, to serve your parents and be content to follow
them anywhere--this is the perfection of filial piety. To serve your
ruler and be content to do anything for him--this is the peak of loyalty.
And to serve your own mind so that sadness or joy do not sway or move it;
to understand what you can do nothing about and be content with it as with
fate--this is the perfection of virtue. As a subject and a son, you are
bound to find things you cannot avoid. If you act in accordance with the
state of affairs and forget about yourself, then what leisure will you
have to love life and hate death?...
"Just go along with things and let your mind move freely. Resign
yourself to what cannot be avoided and nourish what is within you--this is
best. What more do you have to do to fulfill your mission? Nothing is as
good as following orders--that is how difficult it is!"
Taoism. Chuang Tzu 4
Ramayana, Ayodhya Kanda 109: Rama rejects his friends' arguments that he
should seize the throne and abrogate the command of his father that he
retire to the forest. He regards the duty of a filial son to obey his
father's wishes to be more precious than a kingdom. Doctrine of the Mean
14: Compare 1 Corinthians 9.19-22, p. 1021.
Every one should remain in the state in which he was called. Were you a
slave when called? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail
yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave
is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a
slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of
men. So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him abide
Christianity. 1 Corinthians 7.20-24
Mencius said, "Though nothing happens that is not due to destiny, one
accepts willingly only what is one's proper destiny. That is why he who
understands destiny does not stand under a wall on the verge of collapse.
He who dies after having done his best in following the Way dies according
to his proper destiny. It is never anyone's proper destiny to die in
Confucianism. Mencius VII.A.2
There was a demon named Harikesha, devoted to the brahmins and to dharma.
>From his very birth he was a devotee of Shiva. His father said, "I think
you cannot be my son, or else you are indeed ill-begotten. For this is
not the behavior (svadharma) for families of demons. You are by your
inborn nature cruel-minded, flesh-eating, destructive. Do not behave in
this evil way [that is, worshipping brahmins and Shiva]; the behavior
ordained by the Creator for demons should not be abandoned; just as
householders should not perform actions appropriate to the hermitage.
Abandon this human nature with its complicated scale of rites; you must
have been born from mortal man, to be set on this wrong path. Among
mortals, the appropriate ritual duty arises according to caste; and I too
have ordained your duty in the proper way." But Harikesha went to Benares
and performed asceticism until Shiva accepted him as a great yogi, one of
his own hosts.
Hinduism. Matsya Purana 180.5-7
1 Corinthians 7.20-24: Christianity does not sanction slavery. However,
in the Roman Empire, when Paul wrote this letter, many slaves became
Christians. Paul counseled them to fulfill their social duties,
internally living in the spiritual freedom of Christ, and all the while
looking for an opportunity to gain lawfully their external freedom as
well. Cf. Philemon 10-17, p. 281. Matsya Purana 8.5-7: This and similar
stories of the good demon who aspires to a destiny beyond that ordained
for his race are understood as metaphors for any person who aspires to a
destiny beyond his caste. However, it is not always the case that, as in
this example, will triumphs over blood. See Vishnu Purana 3.17-18, p.
448; cf. Sanhedrin 105a, p. 744.