The Field of Sacred Duty

The Bhagavad Gita is a sacred scripture that has become a timeless source of wisdom throughout the world. The story of the Gita involves two sets of cousins — the Pandavas and the Kauravas — who vie for control of the kingdom of Kurukshetra. Using not quite the wisdom of Solomon to determine which side will rule the kingdom, they agree to play a game of dice. The Kauravas fraudulently defeat their cousins and the Pandavas are sent into exile for thirteen years, after which they will be allowed to return and rule the kingdom.

At the end of the exile, the Pandavas return to claim what is rightfully theirs. Not surprisingly, the Kauravas are not eager to relinquish control and the Pandavas must take the kingdom by force. The Gita begins as the two sides meet for battle on the field of Kurukshetra — the “field of Sacred Duty.”


Leading the battle for the Pandavas is their prince, Arjuna. For his charioteer, Arjuna selects Lord Krishna, one of the most powerful incarnations of the god Vishnu. Just before the battle is enjoined, Krishna and Arjuna ride to the middle of the battlefield to survey the opposition. What Arjuna sees are fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, sons and friends. He realizes that to take the kingdom, he must kill his kinsmen. He grows disheartened and says to Krishna, “It is better in this world to beg for scraps of food than to eat meals smeared with the blood of elders I have killed.” He then slumps down in his chariot and lays down his bow and arrows.

Now Krishna gives him counsel. And what does the god Krishna tell him to do? Does he sympathize with Arjuna? Does he applaud his compassion and pacifism? No. Krishna says, “Why this cowardice in time of crisis, Arjuna?” “Rise to the fight!”

You see, Arjuna is a member of the Kshatriya class. He is a warrior. And Krishna reminds him that he is part of something much, much larger than himself. Arjuna has responsibilities and obligations that only he can fulfill. He is a warrior, and it is his job to fight. If he fails to fight, he shirks his responsibility and betrays his sacred duty. The remainder of the Gita is a dialogue whereby Krishna instructs Arjuna on how to fulfill his sacred duty, live a proper life and achieve liberation.

Many believe this story to be historical, but it is much more allegorical. Arjuna is Everyman, and the instruction is intended for you and me.  Every day, each one of us does battle on the field of sacred duty. Each one of us is part of a greater whole — a family, a community, an organization, the world — and each one of us has unique responsibilities and contributions to make.

We may not always embrace our responsibilities. We may find them to be unsavory and burdensome. And it is not always easy to remain steadfast in our principles when easier ways appear to be more personally beneficial to us. From time to time we, like Arjuna, slump down dejectedly in our chariot, lay down our bow and arrows, and wonder what the point of everything is.

That is because we approach our responsibilities and our roles mindlessly. When we hurry to complete tasks so that we can do something more enjoyable, we are really rushing away pieces of our lives. When we focus too much on the possible outcomes and the consequences they may hold for us, we draw attention away from the task at hand. When we focus too much on ourselves, or our ego, we get caught up in what’s in it for us and lose sight of the much, much bigger picture. 

The Gita and other wisdom traditions teach us that we are part of a greater whole, and each part has a unique contribution to make. We attain happiness and contentment not by resisting our duties and responsibilities, but by embracing them. We must let go of the notion that we are burdened by obligations, because so is everyone else. Whatever it is that we are called upon to do, it is infinitesimally small compared to all the contributions that others are making to enrich our lives.

The goal is to approach life mindfully. If a task is worth doing, then it is worth doing well, and it can only be done well if we give it our full concentration. We achieve this by relinquishing our attachment to the outcomes of our works.  As Krishna instructed Arjuna, “Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.” Constant wondering about what’s in it for us produces constant anxiety within us, and mediocrity in what we do. Jesus told us,

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

Accepting our roles in life, most of which we have chosen for ourselves, and releasing our habitual tendency to worry about how the outcome of each activity will benefit us, leads us to enjoy the state that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “Flow.” Happiness comes about when we are involved in every detail of our lives, good or bad. Csikszentmihalyi reminds us what humans have known for a long time, that “the control of consciousness determines the quality of life.” “It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.”

What Krishna is really teaching Arjuna, and what the Gita is teaching you and me, is the meaning of life. Each of us has a role that supports the big picture. We may benefit temporarily from our actions, but lasting happiness comes from embracing the role. As the Tao Te Ching instructs us, “When you have accomplished your goal, simply walk away.”

The rewards that our actions may produce are fleeting. Contribution brings lasting contentment. Embrace your role because you cannot avoid it. Perform your duty because no one else can. Then let go … until the next time you are called upon to do battle upon the field of sacred duty.

References quoted in this article

Photo: “Hitopadesha” by Shekhartagra – Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -