What is “Prescribed duty” as per Bhagavad Gita?

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    Sivabalan Muthu

    Hare Krishna Prabhu,

    Bhagavad Gita recommends everyone to perform his prescribed duty. I have confusion on what is this “prescribed duty” exactly means and how one can know his prescribed duty.

    Personally my moral sense says that all fossil fuel based technology is immoral since it is artificial and causing big destruction to the environment and people in many direct and indirect ways. At present time, due to the rise of this industrialization, many people have no other choice but forced to work in industries that cause havoc to people life. For example, medical industries and technologies that focus on increasing its profit by creating more diseases. A food industry that adulterates its food with poison (preservative), A software industry that creates applications that aggravate narcissistic tendencies (pubg game, metaverse).

    When I expressed, to some people, that I feel it is immoral to do my job, they use to quote BG 18.47, where Srila Prabhupada writes:

    “the merchant should not think that because he is engaged in an occupation in which the telling of lies is compulsory, he should give up his profession and pursue the profession of a brāhmaṇa”

    Based on the above quote, I was told that it is right to do my job and not to do other occupation. Is this correct? Can you please give me clarity on this?

    Ashish Dalela

    This is a difficult question at the present because there are few good alternatives. When there are no good alternatives, then the best alternative among the available options is dharma.  In the Vedanta Sutra, it is stated that when one’s life is in danger, then one is permitted to eat animals. Yes, eating animals is not the ideal thing, but it is permitted when there is no other alternative. If there is a better alternative, then we should try to take that, because that better alternative is dharma.

    So, dharma doesn’t mean universal rules and regulations. It means the best option available to us. If someone is incapacitated due to injury or birth defect, then we cannot expect them to do the ideal activity. But they can do whatever best is possible within their situation. That activity is considered perfect, even though it is not ideal. You can also read this post for a more detailed discussion.

    One thing we should understand very clearly is that the upper limit on happiness and the lower limit on distress is fixed by karma. That means, by our intelligence, we cannot go beyond maximum happiness. Likewise, by our intelligence, we cannot go lower than the minimum distress. However, by our stupidity, we can go lower than the maximum happiness and higher than the minimum distress. So, intelligence is required to not go lower in happiness and not increase our distress. But that doesn’t mean that we can avoid some minimum distress, or go beyond maximum happiness.

    What is intelligence? It means doing the most moral thing under the given circumstances. If your duty demands it, and you have carefully found the best alternative, then you may have to take some bad outcomes, but don’t worry about them. Krishna says: You have the right to perform your duty and no right to results. Therefore, don’t be enamored by results, and don’t neglect your duties. If we do that, then if something is in your karma or destiny, it will come automatically to you.

    I will give you a personal example. Many years ago, I was managing a team of people. My boss told me: I want to give you a raise, but we don’t have the money. But here’s what I can do: In the yearly bonus cycle you will get a large sum of money that you are supposed to distribute to your team. Don’t distribute all the money to your team. Whatever you leave in the kitty, I will give it to you. I told him right then and there: “I cannot do that. I don’t mind if I don’t get a raise, but I’m not going to cut someone’s raise to increase my pay.” He did not like it, and I was not sorry for saying that. I stuck to my duty and paid out the last penny to my team. Then, a few days later, my boss came back and said: Here is an additional $20,000 for your contributions.

    This is the work of karma. If something is due for you, you will get it one way or another. It may fall from the sky, but it will come. I have firm faith in Krishna’s words, so I did my karma-yoga, which means doing the most honorable thing, and not worrying about the results. I’m convinced that when results are due, they will come.

    Of course, many managers want corruptible subordinates that they can use for their benefit. If you act corruptly once, then you will be asked to do corrupt things again and again. Thereby, you enter into their inner circle where you are often rewarded, but you also do their bidding. I did not want to be in that inner circle of rewards and profits if that meant doing immoral things. So, I showed my spine when it was needed, and I got some rewards, but I was also left outside the inner circle. Karma-yoga means you will get some benefits and some losses, but don’t worry about them.

    Everything we do involves some unintended consequences. Even if you grind grains in a mill, there are insects that we may not be able to see, but they are ground with the grain. When we cook food, some bacteria are killed. When you walk on the street, there some ants are crushed unknowingly. These things are unavoidable.

    In SB, there is the story of Jada-Bharata. He was forcibly engaged as the carrier of a king’s palanquin, but he was extremely careful about not stepping on any ants. So, he would move side-to-side to avoid stepping on these ants, which caused the palanquin to shake and the king got very upset. As the king started chastising the palanquin carriers, they pointed their fingers at Jada-Bharata. But he was not afraid. He spoke honestly, and the king fell before Jada-Bharata and learned from him. The purport is that there is always something sinful happening as a side-effect of our normal duties, and while we should try to avoid that, we may not be able to do that. Then, when things happen despite our best efforts, they are not considered sinful activities. The intention is very important in deciding karma. A bad action done unintentionally is less karma, and a bad action done unintentionally while intentionally performing a duty is not considered bad karma at all.

    Now, coming to Prabhupada’s purport. There are situations in which you have two alternatives, both of which are bad. In that case, dharma means choosing the least-worst option. He gives the example of Kshatriyas, where you have to lie sometimes in order to protect the greater good. When that lie is done in the interest of the greater good, then it is not adharma. But when a person cheats simply for his own selfish interest, rather than the greater good, then it is considered a sinful activity.

    Similarly, a merchant has to lie sometimes. But as long as the goods that he is selling are not harmful to the customer, and he is not overpricing them, then it is not sinful. If a drug manufacturer hides the dangerous side-effects of drugs to profit from them, then it is not done for the greater good. The drug manufacturers can survive without these extra profits, but they want to pay themselves big bonuses. So they manipulate laws, government regulations, and media to peddle lies. That is not the greater good, and certainly against the medical oath, and therefore very sinful.

    Then, the greater good is constrained by our duties, which means everyone should not think about the greater good in every possible way. One has a certain role and duty within which we can think of the greater good. For example, during the World Wars, many laborers and merchants joined the war effort voluntarily, even though they were not required to do so. Their argument was: “I believe in this war”. Well, who cares what you believe in? Aren’t you duty-bound to do certain things? They would go for a training and be put in the front. Many of them were killed. This is not dharma. Conversely, when Laxmibai’s husband died and there was no one to lead the battle against the British, she tied her newborn baby on her back and rode a horse, fighting a battle where she was killed, because they just had swords and the British were fighting with guns. That is dharma because it is forced by the situation. Then, if the war is forced on a country, and you are called to enlist, and you are able-bodied, then it is dharma to enlist in the army. Conversely, if the war is immoral, and you are called to enlist (e.g., the US invading Vietnam) then one must evade it.

    So, dharma is complex because (a) we have to find the least evil option based on duty and the greater good, and (b) even then, some bad things happen inadvertently.

    Regarding the specific question you have asked regarding job options, just try to apply the above principles. The situation at present is so bad that we cannot avoid bad outcomes, but we can try to minimize those types of activities and try to stick to the most moral life possible. If you try to do that, then you will see that whatever is due to you by karma, will come to you automatically. It may not come to you in the way you normally imagined, but it will come to you one way or another.

    In this regard, we can recall the story of Hiranyakasipu. He had taken numerous benedictions from Brahma regarding how he will die. These included: I will not die in the day and I will not die in the night; I will not die inside and I will not die outside; I will not be killed by animals nor will I be killed by human forms; I will not be killed on the ground, and I will not be killed in the sky; I will not be killed by mundane or divine weapons. And so on. By taking all these benedictions, he thought he has become immortal. But Lord Narasimha found a way to kill him. He was killed in the evening–neither the day nor the night. He was killed by a man-lion form–neither animals nor a human form. He was killed by nails–neither divine nor mundane weapons. He was killed in Lord Narasimha’s lap–neither on the ground nor in the sky. He was killed on the doorstep of his palace–neither inside nor outside.

    We think we are smart, but God is infinitely smarter. We think we have some cunning, but God is infinitely more cunning. So, He can find ways to do things that are beyond our imagination. Similarly, nature is extremely smart. She will find a way to send you reward or punishment despite all the seeming hindrances.

    Finally, we can remember the story of King Parikshit. When he was cursed to be killed by a snake bite, he did not hide inside his palace. Any normal king would do that. A normal king will hide inside his palace, and place guards to prevent any snake from coming into the palace. But King Parikshit did not do that. He accepted his death. Instead of trying to protect himself, he renounced his kingdom and attempted spiritual perfection by listening to Sukadeva Goswami. Now, contrast that with King Kamsa. When he was cursed to die by the 8th child of Devaki, he started killing all their children. When he realized that Krishna had already been taken to Gokula, he sent so many demons to kill all the recently born children to protect himself. This is a demonic mentality, namely, trying to avoid the inevitable, rather than embracing it, preparing for it, accepting it, in whatever way it comes to us naturally.

    All these things are intelligence. And stupidity is knowingly doing things that can harm you. For example, during the CoVID pandemic, some people want to party, go to parks, or unnecessarily mix with people. This is like showing the red flag to a bull to provoke him to charge you. Then, if you dodge the bull, you think you are very smart. But if the bull kills you, then it seems stupid in hindsight. But some people get thrills out of risk-taking. They do dangerous things just to get the kick. Yes, based on karma, you can get these thrills for some time, but when the karma runs out, then you have to suffer. We may also suffer if the thrill is not ordained by karma at that time, but there is an ordainment of bad karma at that time. The bottom line is that we should perform our duties, and not go out of the way for gains or losses.

    Knowledge is very important to give us intelligence and to overcome stupidity. Don’t do stupid things like quitting your livelihood unless you have found a better alternative. At the same time, if you are not happy with the current situation, keep looking for something better. When the time arrives, it will come automatically, and you will be able to take it. Similarly, try to avoid sinful activities as much as possible in your current situation. If something is unavoidable and forced by the situation, then accept it but don’t rationalize it as the perfect thing. It is just a compromise.

    Material life means a lot of compromises, and spiritual life means no compromise. When something is forced due to the situation, we can compromise, and that is not considered adharma. But we should not compromise with the nature of the Absolute Truth. Always try to reach the most ideal situation knowing that we may not reach that ideal. That non-ideal is also perfect when it is the most ideal in a given situation. What is most ideal requires the assessment of many factors. So, dharma is not universal rules and regulations. It is rather the application of principles in the best way possible. Sometimes it is more perfect to lie, in order to show kindness. And sometimes it is more perfect to show unkindness, to tell the truth. Both situations involve a compromise, and we have to judge which situation needs what type of compromise. If we rely on Krishna for guidance, He will give us that intelligence to make the best judgment. You can read Bhagavad-Gita 10.10 in this regard.

    Sivabalan Muthu

    Thank you Prabhu. This makes sense.

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