The Ten Main Duties (dharmas) in Hinduism
Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Duties of God
In Hinduism dharma primarily means duty. All other meanings of dharma arise from this root meaning only. Even God takes upon Himself certain duties, although He has no desires and no interest in doing or not doing anything. All our duties, energy, consciousness, and qualities arise from Brahman, the Supreme Being, since He delegates them to His numerous manifestations according to their status and hierarchy in creation. Since God is eternal, his duties are also eternal, and since Hinduism is all about performing God's duties by humans upon earth, Hinduism is traditionally known as Sanatana dharma, or eternal duty.
According to our scriptures, those who renounce the world and lead an ascetic life have no duties and obligations. They may practice spirituality as part of their self-transformation in the pursuit of liberation, or they may teach and preach, but like Supreme Brahman they are under no obligation to follow any aim or goal in particular. However, those who take up the life of a householder (grihasta) have many duties and obligations. In this regard, they take upon themselves at the individual and personal level the duties of the Supreme Being in the material universe. The following are ten such most important duties enjoined upon Hindus by the Vedas and the Dharmashastras (books of duties). In the present day world, most Hindus do not practice them. Nevertheless, the best way to protect and uphold any faith is to practice it, rather than brag about it or wage wars about it. Hence, in today's context these ten duties become even more important.
1. Duty towards self
Duties towards Self can be divided into duties towards the body, the mind, and the soul respectively, which lead to health, strength, mental clarity, purity (sattva), and spiritual transformation. Their purpose is to improve and maintain one's own physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. The Bhagavadgita says," One should uplift oneself by oneself; and one should not debase oneself because surely the Self is one's own friend and one's own enemy." It means you are your own best friend when you are on the path of righteousness, and your worst enemy when you indulge in evil actions. Therefore, one should not indulge in any actions that would lead to one's moral and spiritual downfall into darker and demonic hells. Although householders lead worldly lives, eventually they have to work for their liberation.
2. Duty towards gods
The gods (devas) exist in the body as organs and in the universe as the lords of their respective spheres. Since they are selfless and do not make food for themselves, human beings are obliged by duty to perform rituals and sacrifices and make them offerings of food. As you are aware, if you do not feed your body, your senses become numb and weak. You also know that if you feed the evil behavior in you, the gods and the sattva in you grow weaker while the demonic tendencies and impurities in you grow stronger. It is therefore important that you nourish yourself and gods with good thoughts and good food through your conduct as well as sacrifices.
3. Duty towards ancestors
Your ancestors are responsible for your birth. They contribute to your gene pool. Hence, you owe them a debt of gratitude. According to the Vedas, upon departing from here, the souls live in the ancestral world until their karmas are exhausted. By doing good deeds, living virtuously, performing, rituals and making them offerings of food, their descendants can prolong their stay and grant them better lives in their next birth. This is pitryajna, sacrifice to the ancestors, which the Vedas declare as the duty of human beings towards their ancestors. If your ancestors are happy, they will also bless you and help you attain peace and prosperity upon earth. By serving them, you will replay the karmic debt you owe to them.
4. Duty towards progeny
Hindus are expected to work for the welfare of their progeny from the time of their conception. Until they renounce their worldly lives and take up renunciation, parents have an obligation to perform all the sacraments for the children, educate them either personally or with the help of learned teachers, teach them their duties and responsibilities, inculcate in them good values, and help them become virtuous individuals. At the time of death, they are also expected to pass on their good name, qualities, strengths and abilities to their children through prayers and rituals. Since parents can be born in the same families as the children or grandchildren of their own children, such duties become even more important to preserve the family line, name, status and reputation.
5. Duty towards fellow human beings
As a Hindu, you are not expected to live selfishly for yourself or your family only because you are but a representative of God upon earth. Your life, identity, power, abilities, strengths, riches, and enjoyment come from Him. Therefore, in Hinduism charity (dana) is one of the highest virtues. In fact, it was the only virtue, which Brahma specifically taught to humans in the beginning of creation for their peace and happiness. In Hinduism, service to humanity is considered service to God. Hence, Hindus have an obligation to help the poor and the needy, the weak and the disabled, the beggars, the mendicants, monks and ascetics who do not cook food for themselves. They are also expected to serve the guests who visit their homes, and educate those who approach them with a request to teach them knowledge.
6. Duty towards other living beings
Since all beings possess souls and since they are manifestations of Brahman only, Hindus have an obligation to show compassion towards all living beings, practice nonviolence, and avoid harming and hurting anyone, except in self-defense. They are also expected to nourish them within their means and help them survive and flourish. Hinduism is the only religion where animals are not only treated with consideration but also traditionally worshipped. Many deities have either animal forms and features, or use animals as their vehicles. Animals have also duties in creation and their duty is to serve humans in different capacities. As the Vedas say, just as the humans are to gods, the cattle are to humans.
7. Duty towards society
Hindus have an obligation to uphold the order and regularity (rta) of society. They are not expected to destroy or disturb the institutions of family, caste, community, or tradition, whose source is in heaven since they are established by God to prevent chaos and confusion in the mortal world. Followers of God are also expected not to spread confusion by teaching perverted knowledge, beliefs, and philosophies that can unsettle human minds and lead to their moral and spiritual downfall. The scriptures declare that whenever society is in decline and evil is on the rise, due to our failure to contain it, God himself manifests upon earth to restore Dharma or He may manifest His aspects, emanations, demigods and associate powers for the same purpose. During normal times we are expected to do it in our individual capacity as the upholders of Dharma.
8. Moral duties
In Hinduism, every human being has an obligation to practice virtue and uphold the Divine Law. They have to cultivate purity (sattva), and discernment (buddhi) and follow the injunctions and guidelines prescribed in the scriptures. Some important moral duties are the study and recitation of scriptures, prayers, worship, rituals, sacrifices, devotion, self-restraint, purity, moral discipline, discernment, resolve, good works, and the practice of virtues such as nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy before marriage, and non-covetousness. Other duties include respecting the elders, parents and teachers, taking care of old and aged members of the family, helping children to grow up, and avoiding the cardinal sins namely lust, anger, pride, envy, and delusion.
9. Professional (caste) duties
Hindus have are obliged to perform certain duties and responsibilities that come with power, position, caste and authority. For example each caste and caste related profession entails upon its members certain duties and obligations. In today's world most professions are not birth related. However, it is still important that they are performed according to the established practice. For example, those who are in leadership positions have to act fairly and impartially without falling for temptations and selfishness. Those who become spiritual teachers, or take up priesthood functions have to live virtuously and spread the knowledge of the Dharma. Those who become the warriors of Hinduism have to defend their faith, their land, and the people who practice it. Traders and merchants have to practice their professions without lying, cheating, and deceiving. Finally, those who take up manual labor should follow the rules that apply to them and do their part in serving others, without expecting society to take care of them, or support them with freebies.
10. Duties towards other faiths
It is the duty of a Hindu to practice his faith, but not to unsettle the minds of those who do not practice it. They are expected to show restraint and friendliness in dealing with people of other faiths, and live in harmony with them. Hinduism clearly affirms that the paths to God are many and all paths lead to Him only. Hence, fanaticism and intolerance are completely ruled out. However, amity does not mean submission to other faiths or practicing them. As a Hindu you not only have a right to choose what you believe in, but also have an obligation to defend your faith if necessary. In this regard, the gods of Hinduism are the best example. They are the most benign and compassionate beings, and yet each is a warrior who will not hesitate to fight the demons if the situation demands.
In Hinduism the way of duty is the way of karma. As stated before, all duties in creation arise from God only, who is the true doer and source of all actions. The duties of human beings upon earth come from God only as delegated responsibilities. Hence, performing one's duties is the first step in the transformative process of every individual towards liberation. No one can achieve liberation without performing their obligatory duties and responsibilities. However, one should also remember that actions produce karma and thereby bind people to the cycle of births and deaths. Therefore, it is important that in performing them one should remain selfless and offer the fruit of such actions to God only who is the source and cause of all. This is called the renunciation of the fruit of one's actions (karma phala sanyasa yoga) whereby actions do not bind you.
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