Annie Besant – The Law of Duty

The Law of Duty






Annie Besant

In our talk of yesterday, we came to certain definite conclusions. We studied the nature of Law, and we found that a larger Consciousness than the waking brain consciousness of man exists in each of us. We saw that if that Consciousness was to manifest itself, then it was necessary that the senses should be utterly controlled, and the mind should be under restraint. So far we went in our study of the Higher Life yesterday.

Now we enter on another stage of our study, and we have to consider how a man should guide his conduct, in order that in him the Higher Consciousness may manifest itself in all its power. We want to see the stages of the preparation and to realise what each of us can do, now in the position that we are in, to prepare ourselves for that divine unfolding, for that blossoming of the bud of Consciousness, which is growing slowly within each of us. And in order that we may follow the subject well, let us define one or two words and expressions that we shall have to use throughout.

First, what is meant by the Higher Life? I have used it in the widest sense of the term, for all manifestations of life above the physical. It would include the manifestation of man in the various worlds invisible to the eyes of the flesh – regions of which we speak by using the word “planes” – astral plane, manasic plane, buddhic plane, atmic plane, and whatever in the vast universe may lie beyond.

What do we mean by “spiritual”? All manifestations of the Higher Life as thus defined are not necessarily spiritual. We must separate, in our thought, the form in which Consciousness is embodied and the Consciousness itself. Nothing that is of the form is spiritual in its nature. The life of form on every plane belongs to the prakritic manifestation, and not to the spiritual. The manifestation of the life in form may be on the astral plane, or on the manasic plane, but it is no more spiritual there than it is on the physical plane. Everywhere the prakritic manifestation is purely phenomenal, and nothing that is phenomenal can be said to be spiritual. That is a matter to be remembered. Otherwise we shall blunder sorely in our studies, and we shall not choose rightly the means by which the spiritual is to evolve. It matters not whether the life of form be lived on a lower or a higher plane – stone, vegetable, animal, man, or Deva. In so far as it is prakritic, phenomenal, in its nature, it has nothing to do with that which can claim the name of the Spiritual. A man may develop astral or manasic Siddhis, he may possess an eye that can see far into space, far abroad over the universe, he may hear the singing of the Devas and listen to the chanting in Svarga, but all that is phenomenal, all that is transitory. The Spiritual and the Eternal is not of the life of form.

What then is the Spiritual? It is alone the life of the Consciousness which recognises Unity, which sees one Self in everything and everything in the Self. The spiritual life is the life which, looking into the infinite number of phenomena, pierces though the veil of Maya and sees the One and the Eternal within each changing form. To know the Self, to love the Self, to realise the Self, that and that alone is Spirituality, even as to see the Self everywhere alone is Wisdom. All outside that is ignorance; all outside that is unspiritual. If once you understand this definition, you will find yourself compelled to choose not the phenomenal but the real, to choose the life of the Spirit as distinguished from the life of the form, though on the highest plane. You will be compelled to choose definite methods for evolving the life of the Spirit, and you will search for the knowledge of the law which shall enable the Consciousness to unfold, so that it may recognise its unity with all Consciousness everywhere, so that every form shall be dear not for the sake of the form but for the sake of the Self, which is the life and reality of the form.

Remember how Yajnavalkya taught Maitreyi, when she desired to know this same spiritual part of the Higher Life, and he said: “Not for the sake of the husband is the husband dear, but for the sake of the Self is the husband dear; not for the sake of the wife is the wife dear, but for the sake of the Self is the wife dear”; and so on from one thing to another, to child, lover, friend, ending at last with the life that stretches beyond the physical: “Not for the sake of the Devas are the Devas dear, but for the sake of the Self the Devas are dear.”

That is the note of the Spirit. All is in the Self. The One is recognised everywhere. How shall we attain it? how shall we, blinded by matter, know it? Note that the first great step towards the attainment of this, realisation is the Law of Duty. Let us pause a moment to understand why the Law of Duty is the first truth which a man must obey, if he wishes to rise to the spiritual life. You find beings around us, belonging to the higher worlds, who are not spiritual, but who exercise enormous forces, who energise nature, bending matter to their will: mighty beings of tremendous power who range the world around us, some helping forward evolution by inspiring noble thought and high endeavour; others who are also helping forward evolution, but who do it by striving to hinder the progress of man and to bewilder him, in order that man may learn to plant his foot firmly, and by struggling against the wrong may become perfect in the right. Both these sides are of the divine manifestation; you cannot have the light without the darkness, nor progress without resistance; there is no evolution without the force that works against it.

It is the force that works against evolution that gives stability to progress, and makes possible the higher growth of man. We must, however, beware that we do not fall into the common errors and confuse the functions of the two. The forces and the beings of the higher world who help evolution forward, who guide and inspire, lift and purify us, these are rightly the objects of reverence, and in their steps we may safely tread, and to them we may safely pray. The other powers are our friends, in so far as we resist them and oppose them: and they can only help us then when we strive against them.

For then they strengthen the spiritual muscles and nerves. But the success that we can gain in their region in evolution lies in the power by which we combat them; and the strength that is evolved in the struggle helps forward our evolution. They are not to be followed and not to be obeyed, not to be meditated upon, nor appealed to. How then shall the wayfarer choose his path, and know the test whereby one may be distinguished from the other?

By the Law of Duty within him, by the divine Self which points out the path of progress, by obedience to Duty above all else, and by reverencing Truth as greatest, and worshipping it without a shadow of wavering or an idea of change. Now, it is sometimes said, and it is true, that in the Sanskrit tongue there is no word for what in the West has been called Conscience. Taking the testimony of Sanskrit scholars, we learn that there is not a word which is the exact equivalent of Conscience. But we are not looking for words but for things, not searching for labels but for facts. I ask you in what Scriptures, or in what literature, you can find better expression of this idea of Conscience, than in the Eastern, where we find obedience to Conscience and reverence for Duty shining out in golden example and practice in the lives of men of ancient India, as well as in the precepts recorded in ancient Sanskrit books.

Take, for example, the conduct of Yudhishthira, the righteous King, who once in a trial at the hands of Sri Krishna Himself had fallen from truth. See him in the last scene of his life, ere he leaves this earth, when Indra the King of the Devas comes down and bids him mount his car and go to the highest heaven. Remember how, pointing to the faithful dog that had survived the terrible journey across the great desert, he says: “My heart is moved with compassion for the hound; let him come to Svarga with me”. “There is no place for dogs in Svarga”, replies Indra; and as Yudhishthira still refused he grew sarcastic, saying: “You let your brothers die in the great desert; you left them lying dead. You left Draupadi dying, and her corpse did not check your forward course. If brothers and wife were left behind, why cling to a dog, and why wish to take him onward?” Then replied Yudhishthira: “For the dead we can do nothing; I could not help my brothers or my wife. But this creature is alive, and is not dead.

Equal to the killing of the twice-born, equal to the spoiling of the goods of the Brahmana, is the sin of deserting a helpless one, who has taken refuge with you. I will not go to heaven alone”. And when he was found unshaken by divine argument, and by all appeals of Deva sophistry, then the dog vanished, and Dharma incarnate rose up before him, and bade him to mount to heaven. Stronger than command of Indra was the steadfast conscience of the king. No lure of immortality made him swerve from duty, nor could the sweet tongue of the Deva blind him as to the path of righteousness to which his conscience pointed.

Now, come further back in evolution with me, and see where Bali, King of Daityas, is offering sacrifice to the Supreme; a misshapen dwarf comes up and begs a boon: “Three steps of earth, O King as sacrificial gift”. Three steps of earth, measured by those short limbs of the dwarf? – a petty gift, in truth. The boon is granted; and lo! the first step covers earth; the second spans the sky; where shall the third step be planted? The earth and sky are covered; what then remains? There is but the breast of the devotee, who throws himself down, in order that the third step may be planted upon his bosom.

Then come remonstrances from every side: “It is fraud.” “It is deception.” “It is Hari Himself who is luring thee to thy destruction. Break thy word, and do not follow truth to ruin.” But although the voices strike his ear, he thinks truth and duty and conscience greater than loss of life and kingdom, and lies prone, unmoved. Presently his Guru comes, than whom none may be more revered, and the Guru bids him break his word; and when even to him Bali listens not, the Guru curses him for his disobedience – and then? Then the form of Vishnu is manifest, that mighty form which covers earth and sky, and a voice, speaking with the sweetness of the cooing of the dove, is heard in the silence that prevails: “Bali, defeated and attacked on all sides, reviled by his friends, cursed by his preceptor, this Bali will not give up truth.” Then Vishnu declares that he, in a future Kalpa, will be Indra, the monarch of the Devas, for only where truth is worshipped may power safely be entrusted.

With such cases before us, and scores of others might be cited, what matters it that no one word for “conscience” is found? The idea shines forth constantly, the idea of fidelity to duty, the recognition of the Law of Duty. And what is the one word which is the keynote of the Hindu people? It is Dharma, and this is duty, righteousness. What is, then, the Law of Duty? It varies with every stage of evolution, though the principle is ever the same. It is progressive, as evolution is progressive. The duty of the savage is not the duty of the cultured and evolved man. The duty of the teacher is not the duty of the king. The duty of the merchant is not the duty of the warrior. So that when we are studying the Law of Duty, we must begin by studying our own place on the great ladder of evolution, by studying the circumstances around us that show our karma, by studying our own powers and capacities, and ascertaining our weaknesses. And out of this careful study we must find out the Law of Duty by which we must guide our steps.

Dharma is the same for all who are in the same stage of evolution and the same circumstances, and there is some Dharma common for all. There are duties laid down for all. The tenfold duties laid down by Manu are binding for all who would work with evolution, the general duties that man owes to man. The experience of the past has marked them out, and no doubt can arise about them.

But there are many questions of Dharma that are not so simple in their character. The real difficulty of those who are striving to advance along the path of spirituality is often to distinguish their Dharma, and to know what the Law of Duty demands. There are many cases in our experience, day after day, in which conflict of duties appears to arise. One duty calls us one way, and another duty another way. Then we find ourselves perplexed as to Dharma, as Arjuna was perplexed on Kurukshetra.

These are some of the difficulties of the Higher Life, the tests of evolving Consciousness. It is little difficult to perform the duty that is clear and simple. Blunder is not likely to occur there. But when the path of action is tangled, when we cannot see, how then shall we tread our doubtful way through the darkness? Some dangers we know which cloud the reason and the vision, and make it hard to distinguish duty. Our personalities are our ever-present foes, that lower self which clothes itself in a hundred different forms, which sometimes puts on the very mask of Dharma, and so prevents our recognising that, in following it, we are following the path of desire rather than the path of duty. How are we then to distinguish when the personality is controlling us, and when duty directs? How shall we know when we are misled, when the very atmosphere of personality which encircles us distorts the object beyond it by desire and passion?

I know of no safer way in such trials, than to retire quietly into the chamber of the heart, to try to put personal desires aside, to strive to separate our self for a moment from the personality, and look at the question in a broader, clearer light, with prayer to our Guru­deva to guide us; then, in such light as we may win by prayer, self-analysis, and meditation, to choose the path which appears to us to be the path of duty. We may blunder; but if we blunder, having striven to see clearly, then let us remember that the mistake is necessary in order to teach us a lesson, which it is vital for our progress that we should learn; we may blunder, and choose the path of desire, misled by its influence, and when we think we are choosing Dharma, we may be moved by Ahamkara. Even if that be so, we have done rightly in struggling to see the right, and in resolving to do the right. Even if in striving to do the right, we do the wrong, we may rest assured that the God within us will correct us.

Why should we despair because we make mistakes, when our heart is fixed on the Supreme, when we are striving to see the right? Nay, rather, when we have striven to do the right and have done the wrong in our blindness, we will welcome the pain that clears the mental vision, and we will cry undaunted to the Lord of the burning-ghat: “Send down yet again Thy flames to burn out everything that obstructs the vision, all dross that is mixed with the pure gold; burn Thou, O Radiant One, till we come out from the fire as pure and refined gold, whence all impurities have vanished.”

But if we, coward-like, shrinking from responsibility of coming to, a decision; and deaf to the voice of conscience, choose the easy path which another may tell us is the right one but which we feel to be wrong, and thus, against our own conscience, follow another’s path, what have we done? We have dulled the divine voice within us; we have chosen the lower rather than the higher; we have chosen the easy and not the difficult; we have chosen the surrender of the will rather than its purification; and even though the path that we tread by another’s choice may be the better path of the two, we have none the less injured our evolution by our failure to do that which we believed to be right. That mistake is a thousand-fold more injurious than blundering through the glamour of desire. To do what we believe to be the highest – that is the only safe path for the spiritual aspirant. If you affront your sense of right by taking that as right which in your heart you feel to be wrong, standing on another’s advice and command, then you lose the very power to distinguish between right and wrong, and you put out the only light you have, however poor that light may be, and you choose to walk in darkness rather than in twilight. How will you be able to distinguish between light and dark, between the White Brothers and the Black, how will you know that this is divine and that is asuric, how will you discern the Deva from the Asura, unless you test them by the standard of duty, and by the righteousness they incarnate? Where duty is not done, where love, compassion, purity, self-sacrifice, are not seen, there, there may be power, but there, there is not the spirituality which enlightens the world, and sets an example to men.

In the path of spiritual aspiration, we must not expect to find the way easy and plain; for the spiritual life is not obtained save by repeated endeavour and constant failure, and the path of duty is not found but by undaunted perseverance. Let us but desire to know the right, and we shall surely know it, no matter by what path of anguish the right is to be found. In our daily life, let us practise to do the right, as far as we see it, and we shall surely see more clearly as we proceed.

But since many become confused as to the guides who may aid them in their upward treading, and as to how they may know such guides, let us pause and see what are the tests and proofs of spiritual life, of the spirituality which is to be copied, to be lived, which is an example, a light, in the world. The test and proof of the advanced spiritual man, fit to be the guide, the teacher, the helper of others, is in the perfection of the qualities that the aspirant is striving to produce in himself. He performs perfectly what the aspirant performs imperfectly; he incarnates the ideal which the aspirant is striving to reproduce. What, then, are these qualities, which mark the spiritual life?

Around us on every side we see men and women seeking for light, struggling for growth, puzzled, confused, bewildered. To all and each one that we meet we owe a duty. No one who comes within the circle of our life, but we have a duty towards that person. The world is not ruled by chance; no fortuitous happenings come into the lives of men. Duties are obligations we owe to those around us; and every one within our circle is one to whom we owe a duty. What is the duty that we owe to each? It is the definite payment of those debts with which we are familiar in our studies; the duty of reverencing and obeying those who are superior to us, who are above us; the duty of being gentle and affectionate and helpful to those around us, on our own level; the duty of protection, kindness, helpfulness, and compassion to those below us. These are universal duties, and no aspirant should fail in the attempt at least to fulfill them; without the fulfillment of these there is no spiritual life.

But even when we have discharged to the utmost the debts enjoined by the letter of the law; when we have paid and fulfilled the obligations imposed by our birth, by our family ties, by our social surroundings and national karma; there still remains one higher duty which we may place before us as the light to illumine our path.
Whenever a person comes within our circle of life, let us look to it that he leaves that circle a better man, the better for his contact with us. When an ignorant person comes and we have knowledge, let him leave us a better-informed man. When a sorrowful person comes to us, let him leave us a little less sorrowful for our having shared the sorrow with him. When a helpless person comes and we are strong, let him leave us strengthened by our strength and not humiliated by our pride. Everywhere let us be tender and patient, gentle and helpful with all. Do not let us in our daily path be harsh, so as to confuse, bewilder and perplex others. There is enough of sorrow in the world.

Let the spiritual man be a source of comfort and of peace; let him be as a light in the world, so that all may walk more safely when they come within the circle of his influence. Let us judge our spirituality by our effect on the world, and let us be careful that the world may grow purer, better, happier, because we are living in it. What are we here for, save to help each other, to love each other, to uplift each other? Is the spiritual man to hinder or to uplift his fellow-men? Is he to be a Saviour of mankind, or one who throws back the evolution of his fellows, from whom one goes away discouraged? Watch how your influence affects others: be careful how your words affect their lives. Your tongue must be gentle, your words must be loving; no slander, gossip, or harshness of speech, or suspicion of unkind motive, must pollute the lips that are striving to be the vehicle of spiritual life. The difficulty is in us and not outside of us. It is here in our own lives and our own conduct that the spiritual evolution must be made.

Help your brothers, and do not be harsh with them. Lift then up when they fall, and remember, if you stand today, you too may fall tomorrow, and may need the helping hand of another, in order that you may rise. Every scripture declares that the Heart of the Divine Life is Infinite Compassion. Compassionate, then, must be the spiritual man. Let us, in our poor measure, in our tiny cups of love, give to our fellow-man one drop of that ocean of compassion in which the universe is bathed. You never can be wrong in helping your brother, and in putting your own needs behind the supplying of his wants.

That and that alone is true spirituality, and it means coming back to the point from which we started. It means the recognition of one Self in all. The spiritual man must lead a higher life than the life of altruism. He must lead the life of self-identification with all that lives and moves. There is no “other” in this world; we all are one. Each is a separate form, but one Spirit moves and lives in all. Listen to what spoke the Divine Lover, Shri Krishna, when, looking over the world of men, He passed His Divine verdict of the righteous and the sinful. “If the most sinful worship me”, said He, “with undivided heart, he too must be accounted righteous, for he hath rightly resolved; speedily he becometh dutiful and goeth to eternal peace. O Kaunteya, know thou certainly that my devotee perisheth never”* [ * Bhagavad Gita, ix 30, 31.].

Resolve rightly, then, and no fear need enter your heart. You may blunder, you may make errors, you may fall over and over again, but speedily you will become dutiful, and go to Eternal Peace. Let us give devotion, then, to the Supreme Love. Let us recognise our oneness in Him, and therefore our oneness with each other; and because we have rightly resolved, though we have weaknesses and faults, there is the promise of Truth Itself, speedily we shall become dutiful and go to Peace.