Unlike the language of rights that have received great momentum in the contemporary world, the language of duty is seemingly less popular. The notion where rights are met through the fulfillment of duty is not popular and intelligible to many today. On the contrary, it is often argued that the history of duty discourse is much older than that of rights. It is also a popular opinion that ancient societies like India are fond of duties instead of rights. As a case of oversimplification, it is told that Indian societies care for duties and Western societies care for rights.

By Rohith Krishna

It will be reductive to assume that Indian thought does not carry any notion of human dignity, concern for others, etc; on the other hand, it will also be reductive to consider the concept of duty is absent in the modern West. In fact, the main commitment of Abrahamic religious ethics, which has impacted Western culture, is that the substance of moral teachings is a set of providential obligations, whether to God or fellow humans. Though Immanuel Kant, one of the central Enlightenment thinkers, often emphasised the aspect of ‘freedom’, the attention towards ‘duty’ wasn’t completely absent.

Nevertheless, such oversimplification that classifies rights with the West (modern?) and duties with India (ancient?) has possibly led to some of the following consequences:-

  1. As Indian scholarship attempts to conceptualise rights, it tends to depend on the Western theories assuming that the concept of rights is absent in Indian society.
  2. This presumed absence of narratives on rights in Indian traditions has created reformist tendencies among many Indian intellectuals. It has made them assume that Indians lack social values. This presumption fuelled them to perform activism and describe Indian society in a certain way. Arguably it has created intellectuals that feel Indians required Westernisation (colonisation?) to transform.
  3. Meanwhile, other groups of scholars ignored to engage with the world on rights discourse assuming that India should rather speak on duties. This disengagement has perhaps caused more problems that India appears to be weak in the theoretical discourse on Human Rights.
  4. Rising from colonial anxiety, there were also attempts to appropriate the ideas or instances from Indian texts to Western theories of Rights.

Certainly, there is a discomfort or mismatch when we try to appropriate the modern conceptions of rights with certain relatable concepts from Indian traditions. This discomfort is usually resolved by shifting emphasis entirely towards duties from rights. But as mentioned earlier, duties cannot be exclusively an Indian concept as the West also maintains it. This clarification might tell us one thing, that the discomfort that Indian thinking has is not exclusively about ‘rights’ or ‘duties’ per se. Rather it is about the divisibility that exists in the West between duties and rights. Whereas in India, one could say, rights and duties are indivisible.

Indian thought finds it challenging to comprehend rights and duties as stand-alone concepts or discursive registers. This is perhaps why activism like the right to not wear masks during the Covid period in the West did not make sense to most Indians. In a populous country like India, to induce people wearing masks in crowded places to prevent Covid wasn’t as difficult as it was in the United States. Even a responsible Republican member of the Florida legislature went to the extent of using the term “Mask-Nazi” to refer to the group that supported wearing masks. It might sound surprising to imagine that such reactions, protests, and irresponsible comments from politicians or public figures were relatively lesser in a populous country like India, unlike how it happened in countries like the U.S., Canada, U.K, Australia, etc.

In such countries, the conflict was essentially between a group that considered it their ‘duty’ to wear the masks and another group that considered it was their ‘right’ to not wear it. Such conflicts of ideas are more probable in places where the concept of ‘duty’ and ‘rights’ stands divisible from each other. It is with this line of divisive notion that Indian thought gets uncomfortable. To discuss the reason why and how such divisions came about in the modern West, their relationship with the Christian theology and its consequences are beyond the scope of this article.

The Limitations of ‘Duty’ in the Absence of Indian Cultural Experience

Gandhi’s emphasis on duties is often taken as an example to demonstrate the Indian likeness towards duties over rights. Gandhi indeed pointed towards duty when Julian Huxley (the then Director General of UNESCO) requested him to contribute an essay on his reflections on Human Rights. But it is worth noting that he did not say it by negating the idea of ‘rights’. In the letter he wrote to Julian Huxley, he said, “I learnt from my illiterate but wise mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved came from duty well done”(emphasis added). So even Gandhi is not simply negating rights to emphasise on duty; rather he is saying that rights come only if a duty is done. This leads us to a more profound question. Why should someone perform a duty to protect the rights of others? Let’s discuss.

Different societies try to answer the above mentioned question in different ways. But are they all satisfactory? As mentioned earlier, the duty discourse is not entirely absent in the secular Western world. For a few instances,

  • In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), there is an article that specifies duty towards community.
  • The French ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen’ of 1789 and 1793, highlighting individual liberty, was responded to by the conservatives in 1795 as the ‘Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and Citizen.
  • The modern capitalist venture of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) is another contemporary and popular example of duty or responsibility that we should have for society as an organised body.

Let us examine three instances as an entry point to discuss the insufficiency of contemporary duty discourses.

In the first two instances, the concern for duty is induced through law and a declaration to protect somebody else’s rights. Whenever it is exclusively by the language of command, law or force, then it sounds like an imposition of duty, which in itself appears as a violation of rights. Enforcing duties through the Constitution, in simple terms, is like a contractual agreement between a citizen and the state. The duties of the citizens are laid because the state provides rights to the citizens to enjoy. However, from a civilisational standpoint, Indians keep a sense of duty not merely out of a contractual obligation, or a constitutional morality. This requires further explanation.

Many Indians who live a simple life by not harming others are not even aware that there is something called ‘fundamental duties’, yet they comply with the same organically. However, the duties are not enforceable; and if the State seeks to promote any duty, it can be done only through methods that are in accordance with the Constitution. Still, such declarations and laws do not give the individuals an internal satisfactory reason as to why a duty must be performed.

Naturally, an ordinary human mind would think, why should I do a duty to protect others’ rights? In the absence of finding a satisfactory reason for it, someone may perform the duty exclusively for profit, power, or position but never to protect the rights of others. This is because such answers do not provide us an inherent reason as to why our duties must focus on protecting others’ rights. In the words of Balagangadhara, “…others’ rights do not enter into consideration positively, and because my rights pick out my capacities and powers without referring to anything or anyone else’s rights, the rights that others have are not binding upon me. There is no internal reason why I ought to respect others’ rights.”

An ‘internal reason’ to perform a duty cannot be provided by a secular law, constitution, command, force, money, etc. In the West and subsequently the world, because of the absence of that ‘internal reason’, the public language of ‘duty’ gradually doomed to decline. Thereafter, the Human Rights discourse has become highly mobilisational, a selfish narrative to grab entitlements from others, which turns everyone into enemies and ends up creating more human rights violations.

Human rights wither without a language of duty, and the idea of duty does not communicate enough without an ‘internal reason’ embedded in it. The word ‘duties’ certainly comes with its own baggage without this ‘internal reason’. In such a scenario, it can even turn out to be counterproductive. It is worth remembering that the Fundamental Duties of the Indian Constitution was introduced during the period of Emergency. It was added in 1976 with the recommendations of the Swaran Singh Committee. Therefore, a constitutional language, or declarations might help us to ‘protect’ our rights, and regulate violations, but they would be insufficient to create a satisfactory reason to perform a duty towards the society. Providing a sustainable answer to why a duty has to be performed is perhaps the only way in which the world and the West in particular can get rid of the crisis of right-duty conflict.

One of the key concerns of Indian traditions was in fact giving satisfactory answers or inherent reasons to understand the duties of a human being and why they must be performed. Therefore, as India attempts to narrate its traditional understanding of rights and duties, it must go one step further by talking about the insufficiency of the contemporary duty discourse.

Let us now take the third instance mentioned above, which is CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). If missionary activities for humanitarian causes were the popular campaign for duty a few centuries ago, in this era, it is the CSR projects. The call for duty in the industrial world largely emerged as an effect to manage the criticisms that formed due to the violation of rights committed by the industrial world. Such duties are reactionary, where the violation of rights or damage has already happened.

On similar grounds, we may consider the issue of ecological crisis as violation of rights done by one generation over another or developed world over underdeveloped countries, urban over rural, etc. If so, the ongoing environmentalism to tackle the climate crisis is basically duties that are reactionary where damage to the planet has already happened. This is contrary to the native traditions where people lived in harmony with nature by performing certain duties without even thinking or being conscious that they were “protecting” the environment. What could have self-motivated them to do so?

It is not as though a motivation to respond to a violation of rights such as ‘daṇḍa neeti’ is completely absent in the Indian traditions, but even such responses are directed and articulated as a preventive mechanism for such violations in the future. The crisis of duty discourse today is this absence of interest to ponder and realise why a duty has to be performed and prevent violations from happening in the first place.

The ‘inherent reasons’ to perform the duty cannot depend on the law, fear of punishment, constitution, or imposition of command. India requires accessing its own past about how Indian traditions could answer their individuals on why a duty has to be performed through ‘self-knowledge’. This is a topic in itself that requires a separate inquiry. But to give a glimpse of it in brief, let us look at the instance in Mahābharata, where Yudhiṣṭhira suffers a post-war dilemma. He could not perform his duty as a king as he remembered the occurrences of the war and the damage it created. Just as Arjuna had a dilemma before the war for which Śrī Kṛṣṇa uplifted him through the discourse of the Bhagavadgītā, Yudhiṣṭhira faced a similar dilemma after the war. Here also, Śrī Kṛṣṇa came to the rescue by taking him to the grand old Bhīṣma, who was awaiting his death on the arrow-bed.

Bhīṣma then gives a discourse on Rājadharmā to Yudhiṣṭhira. Even though Bhīṣma renders lengthy discourses, the essence of his messages are conveyed via an analogy or a story from the past. Through such a narration of Duty as an action that is connected to the larger self-knowledge of Guṇa -Karma and Puruṣārtha, Bhīṣma responds to Yudhiṣṭhira’s post-war dilemma. This gave dilemmatic Yudhiṣṭhira a self-satisfactory answer to the question – why a duty has to be performed. Had Bhīṣma discoursed Rājadharmā merely as a will of god, moral code or duty, which Yudhiṣṭhira ‘ought’ to perform because it is his ‘duty’ or ‘law’ or the ‘right’ of his citizens, how much of it would help to remove Yudhiṣṭhira’s dilemma?

Indian tradition is aware that individuals and societies often go dilemmatic about performing duties. In the age of rights, the discourse on duties gradually fell to a decline because of this dilemma. None of the secular law or constitutional morality or declarations could solve this dilemma. In this regard, those stories from the past are functioning as units of learning, models of a situation, and models for being in the world. Reflecting on them enlightens one to gradually understand why and how an individual has to function and removes the dilemma about why a duty should be performed.

Even as documents, declarations, and laws on rights and duties, etc, remain significant at the policy level, there is a need to overcome its limitation regarding the discourse on duties. The pedagogical imperatives of stories from Itihāsa-Purāṇa, Jātaka, etc and the learning it gives to the masses, eventually impacts our understanding of rights and duties. Arguably, this understanding helps us overcome the limitations that contemporary right-duty discourse faces globally.

The Task of Reclaiming the Duty Discourse

The task of reclaiming duty discourse is not merely an Indian scholarly interest. Even historians in the West like Prof. Samuel Moyn, famous for his works on the intellectual history of human rights, vouch for reclaiming the idea of duties. In his words, “Unfortunately, while there has been great interest in the history of rights, no one has attempted to write the history of human duties. Even that phrase sounds strange…..to the best of my knowledge, there is not a single book on the history of duties, even though there clearly have been precedents, including Gandhi’s, for a theory of obligations that would accrue, not just at the level of community or state, but at that of the globe as a whole.” He adds that reclaiming the history of duties is a first step toward the thinking and practice that might justifiably lead to reclaiming duties themselves.

Reclaiming the idea of duty is necessary for understanding many social problems and challenges the world faces today. There are many scholars from the West, realising it. Indian scholarship needs to promote and engage with the discussions that happen at the global level, which calls for reclaiming the history and concept of duties. There lies room for classical Indian thought to intellectually engage with the world to express its idea of duty and identify its differences with the Western concept of duty.

The task for India and its scholarship in reclaiming the idea of duty through global engagement could be in the following way:-

  • Indian scholarship shouldn’t merely shuttle from rights to duties to narrate its cultural experience. It should go a step ahead to understand what explanation its traditions give on answering the question, ‘Why a Duty has to be performed?’ It must persuade the world also to think in that direction.
  • It must also be able to productively engage with the narratives on duty from the past of East Asian, South East Asian, African, and other living traditions where the narratives on duty are available.
  • When India tries to look at its traditional wisdom on duty it has to be related to the limitations of the contemporary discourse on duty (which is influenced by the secular West). It could be a task in itself for us to empirically understand which of them give the most enduring and sensible reason to answer the question, whether Indian traditions or ‘secular’ West?
  • The inability of secular West, major declarations and constitutional language to give an enduring answer to perform a duty shall be acknowledged. The gradual decline of duty in the global discourse could be mapped along with this inability.
  • The Indian traditions’ narrative of duty shall be studied against the above-mentioned void. This is how we draw the contemporary relevance of traditions, and their narratives become important to understand and solve many of our contemporary social dilemmas and problems.

This article first appeared in www.vifindia.org and it belongs to them.