World Scripture, A Comparative Anthology Of Sacred Texts

Editor, Andrew Wilson


Individual Responsibility

Responsibility is central to what it means to be human. Other creatures have life, consciousness, intelligence, and even some limited ability at language; but only human beings are responsible to choose their manner of life and hence their destiny. All the religions of the world emphasize, in one way or another, individual responsibility in matters of faith and practice.

However, the definition and limits of individual responsibility are discerned differently by the various religions. Theravada Buddhism, Jainism, and nontheistic Hinduism regard the journey on the path to liberation as entirely the responsibility of the individual. Each person is "a lamp unto himself"; each works out his own salvation alone and by himself. In several of the passages from Buddhism and Islam given here, there is explicit rejection of reliance upon a savior from without, and both Buddha and Muhammad reject characterization of themselves as saviors.

On the other hand, in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, individual responsibility is given in the context of prevenient grace; as a person works out his own salvation, at the same time God is at work within. Salvation is offered as a gift, and it is our responsibility to receive it and not reject it. These viewpoints, by which God and human beings are jointly responsible for salvation, are covered in the following section on Synergy.

A person's destiny is arguably bound by God's predestination, past karma, or the burden of inherited sin. But several texts in this section reject the notion that such conditions impinge in any way on one's individual responsibility. They argue against a fatalistic attitude born of the belief that one's life is predestined. They also repudiate any illusion that the results of an individual's evil behavior can be mitigated by rank or family connections. Regardless of the conditions by which one person may be afflicted and another favored, every person is a responsible agent who will be called to account for his own deeds. However, note that according to the Hindu and Jain doctrines of karma, the same responsible "self" has existed, performing actions, through many lifetimes; hence certain Hindu and Jain passages interpret such individual responsibility to include the determination of karma.

Individual responsibility means an attitude of self-criticism. We should not blame others for our own difficulties, but rather look for the cause within ourselves. This is an especially prominent theme in Chinese religion, which makes self-rectification the basis for all ethical and political life.

"And now, brethren, I take my leave of you. All the constituents of being are transitory. Work out your salvation with diligence." This was the last word of the Tathagata.

Buddhism. Digha Nikaya ii.155-56, Mahaparinibbana Suttanta

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

Christianity. Philippians 2.12

In fear and trembling, With caution and care, As though on the brink of a chasm, As though treading thin ice.

Confucianism. Analects 8.3

O ye who believe! You have charge over your own souls.

Islam. Qur'an 5.105

Philippians 2.12: But see the following verse, Philippians 2.13, p. 687, which acknowledges the accompanying divine grace. Individual responsibility is emphasized strongly by the Latter-day Saints; see Pearl of Great Price, Moses 4.1-4, p. 440. Analects 8.3: This is a quotation from Book of Songs, Ode 195. Qur'an 5.105: Cf. Qur'an 14.22, p. 443; 33.72, p. 311.

I have heard and realized that bondage and salvation are both within yourself.

Jainism. Acarangasutra 5.36

If I am not for myself who is for me? and when I am for myself what am I? and if not now, when?

Judaism. Mishnah, Abot 1.14

Not by travelling to the end of the world can one accomplish the end of ill. It is in this fathom-long carcass, friend, with its impressions and its ideas that, I declare, lies the world, and the cause of the world, and the cessation of the world, and the course of action that leads to the cessation of the world.

Buddhism. Samyutta Nikaya i.62

Single is each being born; single it dies; single it enjoys the reward of its virtue; single it suffers the punishment of its sin.

Hinduism. Laws of Manu 4.240

The soul indulges in actions, bears fruits, takes birth, dies and transmigrates, all in utter solitariness. I have always been solitary; I belong to no one else; I behold no one to whom I can say I belong; I behold no one whom I can designate as mine.

Jainism. Acarangasutra 4.32

By self do you censure yourself. By self do you examine yourself. Self-guarded and mindful, O bhikkhu, you will live happily.

Self, indeed, is the protector of self. Self, indeed, is one's refuge. Control, therefore, your own self as a merchant controls a noble steed.

Buddhism. Dhammapada 379-80

So, Ananda, you must be lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help. Hold firm to the truth as a lamp and a refuge, and do not look for refuge to anything besides yourselves. A brother becomes his own lamp and refuge by continually looking on his body, feelings, perceptions, moods, and ideas in such a manner that he conquers the cravings and depressions of ordinary men and is always strenuous, self-possessed, and collected in mind. Whoever among my disciples does this, either now or when I am dead, if he is anxious to learn, will reach the summit....

Buddhism. Digha Nikaya ii.99-100, Mahaparinibbana Suttanta

Samyutta Nikaya i.62: Cf. Sutta Nipata 919-20, p. 553. Acarangasutra 4.32: For more of this passage, see p. 956. Cf. Samayika Patha, p. 844. Dhammapada 379-80: Cf. Dhammapada 25, p. 715.

Man should discover his own reality and not thwart himself. For he has his self as his only friend, or as his only enemy.

A person has the self as friend when he has conquered himself, But if he rejects his own reality, the self will war against him.

Hinduism. Bhagavad Gita 6.5-6

Everything is in the hand of Heaven except the fear of Heaven.

Judaism. Talmud, Berakot 33b

Human responsibility is the absolute law of God, and unless you fulfill it you have no way to get into heaven.

Unification Church. Sun Myung Moon, 12-21-86

Whoever works righteousness benefits his own soul; whoever works evil, it is against his own soul: Your Lord is never unjust to His servants.

Islam. Qur'an 41.46

Oneself, indeed, is one's savior, for what other savior could there be? With oneself well controlled one obtains a savior difficult to find.

Buddhism. Dhammapada 160

Hoen of Tozan said, "Even Shakya[muni] and Maitreya are servants of another. I want to ask you, who is he?"

Buddhism. Mumonkan 45

And We have sent you to men a Messenger; God suffices for a witness. Whosoever obeys the Messenger, thereby obeys God; and whosoever turns his back--We have not sent you to be a watcher over them.

Islam. Qur'an 4.79-80

"Please, Man of Shakya," said Dhotaka, "free me from confusion!" "It is not in my practice to free anyone from confusion," said the Buddha. "When you have understood the most valuable teachings, then you yourself will cross the ocean."

Buddhism. Sutta Nipata 1063-64

Berakot 33b: Cf. Sanhedrin 105a, p. 744. The rabbis have high regard for freedom of the human will, and believe that it is beyond the control even of God Almighty. Qur'an 4.79-80: Cf. Qur'an 24.54, p. 633. Sutta Nipata 1063-64: The truth is not to be defined or handed out on a platter; it is to be entered through the enlightenment experience. To grasp the truth intuitively is to arrive. For a Jain version of this idea, see Upadesamala 448-49, p. 633.

The Master said, "What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the mean man seeks is in others."

Confucianism. Analects 15.20

Confucius remarked, "In the practice of archery we have something resembling the principle in a moral man's life. When the archer misses the center of the target, he turns round and seeks for the cause of his failure within himself."

Confucianism. Doctrine of the Mean 14

An individual natively desires to be cause. He tries not to become a bad effect.

You try to help people and people try to help you because you and they want to be cause. When something bad happens, neither one wishes to be cause.

You want to be an effect. Then you find the effect bad. You try not be an effect. And then you blame something or somebody.

Scientology. Handbook for Preclears

Or has he not been told of what is in the scrolls of Moses, and of Abraham, he who paid his debt in full? That no soul laden bears the load of another, and that a man shall have to his account only as he has labored, and that his laboring shall surely be seen, Then he shall be recompensed for it with the fullest recompense, and that the final end is unto your Lord.

Islam. Qur'an 53.36-42

The word of the Lord came to me again, "What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge'? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine, the soul that sins shall die...."

Yet you say, "Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?" When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.... Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, says the Lord God.

Judaism and Christianity. Ezekiel 18

Analects 15.20: Cf. Analects 12.21, p. 733. Doctrine of the Mean 14: Cf. Matthew 7.1-5, p. 996; Analects 12.16, p. 997; Romans 14.10-12, p. 997. Handbook for Preclears: To 'be cause' means to take responsibility for one's actions and for all events that impinge on oneself. To reach the state of Clear means to fully be a cause, never blaming others when things go poorly but always taking responsibility oneself. The way to be a cause in the way of giving.

There are certain recluses and brahmins who teach thus: Whatsoever weal or woe or neutral feeling is experienced, all is due to some previous action... Then I say to them, "So then, owing to a previous action, men will become murderers, thieves, unchaste, liars, slanderers, abusive, babblers, covetous, malicious, and perverse in view. Those who fall back on a former deed as the essential reason [for their behavior] there is neither desire nor effort nor necessity to do this deed or abstain from that deed. So then, the necessity for action or inaction not being found to exist in truth and verity, the term 'recluse' cannot reasonably be applied to yourselves, since you live in a state of bewilderment with faculties unguarded."

Others teach thus: Whatsoever weal or woe or neutral feeling is experienced, all that is due to the creation [predestination] of a Supreme Deity.... Then I say to them, "So then, owing to the creation of a Supreme Deity, men will become murderers, thieves, unchaste... perverse in view. Those who fall back on the creation of a Supreme Deity as the essential reason [for their behavior] there is neither desire nor effort nor necessity to do this deed or abstain from that deed. So then, the necessity for action or inaction not being found to exist in truth and verity, the term 'recluse' cannot reasonably be applied to yourselves, since you live in a state of bewilderment with faculties unguarded."

Buddhism. Anguttara Nikaya i.173-74

The ancients who wished to manifest their clear character to the world would first bring order to their states. Those who wished to bring order to their states would first regulate their families. Those who wished to regulate their families would first cultivate their personal lives. Those who wished to cultivate their personal lives would first rectify their minds. Those who wished to rectify their minds would first make their wills sincere. Those who wished to make their wills sincere would first extend their knowledge. The extension of knowledge consists in the investigation of things. When things are investigated, knowledge is extended; when knowledge is extended, the will becomes sincere; when the will is sincere, the mind is rectified; when the mind is rectified, the personal life is cultivated; when the personal life is cultivated, the family will be regulated; when the family is regulated, the state will be in order; when the state is in order, there will be peace throughout the world. From the Son of Heaven down to the common people, all must regard cultivation of the personal life as the root or foundation. There is never a case when the root is in disorder and yet the branches are in order.

Confucianism. The Great Learning

Ezekiel 18: This important passage was uttered by the prophet Ezekiel to counter the fatalism which was prevalent among the Jews who had been exiled to Babylon and who blamed their lot on the sins of previous generations. In denying a determining role for inherited sin and stressing individual responsibility, he restored a measure of their faith and self-respect. In the Christian era, this passage has been a basis for Jewish arguments against the Christian doctrines of Original Sin and the vicarious Atonement of Christ. Many Jews argue that those doctrines compromise strict individual accountability for sin. Anguttara Nikaya i.173-74: Here Buddha argues against fatalism based on belief in karma or predestination. One's accumulated karma or the predestination of God are only minor factors, conditioning but not determining one's life. There is still always room to apply oneself, gain merit, and advance on the path towards the ultimate goal. Cf. the Simile of the One-Eyed Turtle, amyutta Nikaya v.455, p. 340, in which the Buddha argues against the easy belief that through reincarnation we will have many and frequent chances at life in this world. Great Learning: Cf. Chuang Tzu 5, p. 553; Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah 43, p. 407.


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