World Scripture, A Comparative Anthology Of Sacred Texts

Editor, Andrew Wilson



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 God.

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 fulfillment.

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 Religions. 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 attain concentration.

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 slothful.

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 ability.

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 come.

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 himself.

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 with God.

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 fetters."

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.


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