Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
—Genesis IV, 9
The Path, August, 1887
Many students, in their search for light, find divers problems presented to them for solution; questions so puzzling from the contradictory aspects which they present, that the true course is difficult of attainment for those who seek Right Living.
One of these questions, Is it our duty to interfere if we see a wrong being done? arises.
The question of duty is one that can be decided fully only by each individual himself. No code of laws or table of rules unchanging and inflexible will be given, under which all must act, or find duty.
We are so ignorant or so newly acquainted with a portion of the Divine Will that generally we are poorly fitted to declare decisively what is wrong, or evil.
Each man is the law unto himself—the law as to right and wrong, good and evil. No other individual may violate the law of that man, any more than any other law, without producing the inevitable result, the penalty of an infracted law.
I dare not declare that any one thing or course is evil in another. For me it may be evil. I am not wise enough to know what it is for another. Only the Supreme knows, for He only can read the heart, the mind, the soul of each. “Thou shalt not judge,” saith the sacred writing. My duty is clear in many places, but in the performing of it I may neither act as a judge or hold animosity, anger, or disgust.
Were a man to abuse an animal, surely I must interfere to prevent suffering to the helpless, dumb and weak, for so we are ajoined. This done, my duty lies in helping my brother, for he knew not what he did.
My aim is to find Wisdom, and my duty, to do away with ignorance wherever it is encountered. His act was caused by ignorance. Were a man to abuse wife or child through unwise use of wine or drug truly it is my duty to prevent suffering or sorrow for either wife or child, and also to prevent greater misery—perhaps murder. They are human beings, my fellows. This done, my duty lies toward the man, not in condemnation, but seeking the cause that makes him unwise, strive to alleviate—if not free him from it. He also is my brother.
If men steal, lie, cheat, betray the innocent or are betrayed by the knowing , my duty lies in preventing for others, if I may, sorrow and anguish, pain and want, misery, suicide or bloodshed, which may be, for others the result of these acts.
My duty lies in preventing effects such as these from love for and a desire to help all men, not because men’s actions seem to me wrong or their courses evil. I know not the causes of their actions, nor all the reasons why they are permitted. How then may I say this or that man is evil, this or that thing is wrong? The effects may to me seem evil, inasmuch as such appears to be the result for others. Here my duty is to prevent evil to other mortals in the way that seems most wise.
Finally this is better that one do
His own task as he may even though he fail,
Than take tasks not his own, though they seem good.
—Song Celestial (Bhagavad Gita)
He who seeks “the small old path” has many duties to perform. His duty to mankind, his family—nature—himself and his creator, but duty here means something very different from that which is conveyed by the time and lip-worn word, Duty. Our comprehension of the term is generally based upon society’s or man’s selfish interpretation. It is quite generally thought that duty means the performance of a series of acts which others think I ought to perform, whereas, it more truly means the performance of actions by me which I know are good for others, or the wisest at the moment.
It would be quite dangerous for me to take upon myself the duty of another, either because he told me it was good, or that it was duty. It would be dangerous for him and me if I assumed that which he felt it was good to do, for that is his duty, and cannot be mine. That which is given him to do I cannot do for him. That which is given me to do no living thing can do for me. If I attempt to do another’s duty then I assume that which belongs not to me, was not given me. I am a thief, taking that which does not belong to me. My brother consenting thereto becomes an idler, fails to comprehend the lesson, shifts the responsibility, and between us we accomplish nothing.
We are instructed to do good. That is duty. In doing good all that we do is covered, that for which we are here is being accomplished and that is—duty. We are enjoined to do good where it is safe. Not safe for ourselves, but safe for the objects toward which our duty points. Often we behold beings suffering great wrong. Our emotions prompt us to rush forward and in some way prevent the continuance of it. Still the wise man knows it is not safe. Were he to do so his efforts would only arouse the antagonism and passions of superior numbers, whose unrestrained and ungoverned wills would culminate in the perpetration of greater wrongs upon the one who already suffers. It is safe to do good, or my duty, after I find how to do it in the way that will not create evil, harm others or beget greater evils.
For him who seeks the upward way there is no duty—for nothing is a duty. He has learned that the word conveys an erroneous meaning when applied to the doings of the Seeker. It implies the performance of that which savors of a task, or a certain required or demanded act necessary before progress is made or other deeds be performed. Of duty, there is none such as this.
He learns to do good and that which appears the wisest at the time, forgetting self so fully that he only knows his doing good to others—forgetting self so far that he forgets to think whether he is doing his duty or not—entering Nirvana to this extent that he does not remember that he is doing his duty. That for him is duty.
“Resist not evil,” saith one of the Wise. He who said this knew full well his duty, and desired to convey to us knowledge. That he did not mean men to sit idly by while ignorance let slip the dogs of pain, anguish, suffering, want and murder, is surely true. That he did not mean men to kneel in puerile simulation of holiness by the roadside, while their fellow men suffer torture, wrong or abuse, is still more true. That he did not intend a man to sit silently a looker-on while that which is called evil worked its will upon others when by the lifting of a finger, perhaps, its intentions might be thwarted and annulled—is truth itself. These all would be neglect of a portion of the whole duty of man. He who taught that men should “resist not evil” desired them only to forget themselves. Men think that all things which are disagreeable to them, are evil. By resistance he meant complaint, anger and objection to or against the inevitable, disagreeable or sorrowful things of life, that come to self, and he did not mean man to go forth in the guise of a martyr, hugging these same penalties to his bosom while he proclaims himself thereby the possessor of the magic pass word (which he will never own and which is never uttered in that way): I have Suffered.
If men revile, persecute or wrong one, why resist? Perhaps it is evil, but so long as it affects one’s-self only, it is no great matter. If want, sorrow or pain come to one why resist or cry out? In the resistance or war against them we create greater evils. Coming to one’s-self, they should have little weight, while at the same time they carry invaluable lessons in their hands. Rightly studied they cause one to forget himself in the desire to assist others when similarly placed, and the Lotus of duty—or love for man—to bloom out of the Nile mire of life. Resist not evil, for it is inseparable from life. It is our duty to live, and accept uncomplainingly, all of life. Resist not evil, but rather learn of it all the good which in reality it only veils.
Seek in it, as well as in the gleaming good, for the Mystery, and there will come forth from both the self-same form upon whose forehead is written “Duty,” which being interpreted, meaneth efforts for the good of all other men, and over whose heart is written:
“I am my brother’s keeper.”