Three Duties That are Common to All


by Jayaram V

Summary: Three Duties which are common and obligatory to all human beings and which constitutes universal Dharma in Hinduism

In Hinduism, Dharma primarily means obligatory duty or a set of duties which are meant to ensure the orderly progression of God’s creation. At the highest level, Isvara, the lord of all, performs them for the welfare of the worlds although he has no particular interest in anything and is free from desires. Upon earth, human beings who take upon themselves the duties of householders (grihasta dharma) are meant to perform them as a part of their obligatory duty (Dharma) to the Supreme Being. However, since those duties arise from him, they have to be performed without desires and expectations and as a sacrifice or offering to him. In an ideal world, this is what is expected of each human being upon earth who leads a householder’s life and performs God’s work upon earth.

Thus, one of the tenets of Dharma is that it has to be practiced selflessly as an obligation to the Creator so that one is not burdened by the karma and the consequences which arise from them. To overcome this problem the Bhagavadgita prescribes karma sannyasa yoga according to which one should not abandon or renounce duties or actions (karma) but the desire for their fruit and perform those actions in devotion and as a service or sacrifice to the Supreme Lord. It states that no one can escape from karma by abandoning actions or by merely practicing sannyasa. Actions are mean for sacrifice only. Dharma is meant to help people fulfill their desires through dutiful actions. However, to escape from their consequences one should perform them with detachment and renunciation.

The Isa Upanishad echoes the same ideal. It states that all this is inhabited by the Supreme Brahman and everything here belongs to him. He is the source of all actions and movements. Therefore, we should not claim ownership or doership and wish to live here for a hundred years by performing our actions with the spirit of sacrifice. Ashatavakra states that abstaining from actions is as much due to ignorance as performing actions with desires. Desire is the root cause of happiness and misery, birth and death, bondage and suffering. One should therefore abandon desire and live with the mind fixed in the Self. In Sadhana Panchakam, Shankara advises that one should study the scriptures and perform actions that are prescribed by them, offering such actions to God as a sacrifice and worship.

Three Duties

From the above references we can see that duty (Dharma) has a great significance in the material and spiritual wellness of a human being. One should perform the obligatory duties that are prescribed for them without fail to escape from sinful karma. However, these duties are not common to all. They vary from person to person according to their birth, occupation, age, gender, background, etc. In the past, tradition dictated them according to one's caste and occupation. In today's world those criteria are no more followed by a majority of people.

Hence, in choosing them one may follow the scriptures, one’s family tradition, the advice of a guru or a spiritual master or one’s own discernment. However, although the duties depend upon various factors, depending upon the lifestyle one chooses and the predominance of the triple gunas, three duties are universal and common to all irrespective of their status, caste or occupation. They should not be avoided under any circumstances. They are Yajna (sacrifice), Dana (charity) and Tapas (spiritual practice). While the meaning of each of them varies, we will discuss them in the context of the present-day world.


Traditionally, yajna refers to Vedic sacrifices or any sacrificial action in which offerings are made or something is sacrificed such as one's actions, knowledge or possessions. The Vedas identify two types of sacrifices, obligatory and optional (kamya). The obligatory ones again are of two kinds, daily sacrifices (nitya) and occasional sacrifices (naimittika). As their names suggest, the daily sacrifices have to be performed every day without fail, and the occasional ones on important and auspicious days such as the full moon day or the beginning of a season or in honor of a celestial event or an important occasion in the life of an individual. The optional ones are meant to be performed to fulfill one’s desires, such as desire for progeny, peace and prosperity or happiness, success in life or victory against adversity, etc. The Mimansika tradition also recognizes a fourth one, prohibited actions (Nishiddha karma). They are actions that are prohibited by the scriptures or the tradition or in violation of established practices.

In today’s context, we may interpret the word yajna to refer to any sacrificial action to include not only Vedic rituals, daily and occasional sacrifices as prescribed by the scriptures but also all sacrificial actions which are performed selflessly for the good of others or for one’s family, friends and relations or one’s own spiritual wellbeing and liberation. We may also include in it actions which purify one’s mind and body and lead to the predominance of sattva, knowledge, intelligence and the strengthening of spiritual qualities such as truthfulness, non-violence, non-covetousness, self-restraint, equanimity, sameness, detachment, devotion, humility, etc. Worshipping the divinities at home or in temples, going on pilgrimages and visiting sacred places, participating in satsangs and devotional gatherings, performing devotional service, and activities such as singing the glories of God or chanting his names or reverentially praying to him with a clean and selfless heart also count as sacrificial actions only.


In Hinduism, charity (dana) is considered the highest of sacrificial actions. The Bhagavadgita identifies it as a divine quality which manifests from the Supreme Lord himself. Only those in whom sattva is predominant and who are devoted to God and pure by heart are capable of practicing it selflessly, without expectations. According to the Hindu lawbooks, charity should be practiced as a sacrifice only. Manu states that gifts should be given with discernment at the right time and in a right manner to the people who deserve them. It is difficult for humans to practice charity because they are selfish by nature. Hence, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad states that while Brahma advised the gods and demons to practice restraint (dama) and compassion(daya) respectively, he advised humans to practice charity (dana). Hindus need to be more charitable in today’s world since many Hindus are poor and cannot afford basic amenities. Unless we help them, they will be targeted for conversions by other groups in the name of charity. Hindus also need to be charitable to people who are serving the cause of Hinduism.


Tapas originally means any religious or spiritual activity or observance such as fasting, penance, austerity, mortification, meditation, which may involve pain and suffering and bodily discomfort and lead to self-purification and generation of spiritual heat or energy (tapah). It was the earliest form of ascetic practice, which subsequently gave birth to more advanced yogic practices such as pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sense-restraint), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), samyama (mind-body control), etc. In today’s context, we may include in it any spiritual activity such as the practice of yogic postures, concentration, contemplation, mindfulness practice, compassion to animals and others, friendliness, tolerance, faith, courage, endurance, etc., which lead to the purification of the mind, flowering of spiritual knowledge, mental clarity and stability, self-control, self-awareness, self-purification, equanimity, peace, relaxation, detachment and devotion.

Spiritual practice in any form is highly beneficial in today’s stress-ridden world to maintain balance and remain in control of our thoughts and emotions. We need spiritual strength to withstand the pressures of life and the demands society imposes upon us. For educated people, who are caught in the whirl of materialism, it is even more important than religious practice. Religion helps us divert our attention to God and establish a reverential connection with him. Spirituality helps us strengthen it and elevate it to the transcendental level in which we dissolve our impurities and enter his unified consciousness. As we turn to spirituality, our religious practice improves as our actions become more purposeful, pointed and selfless while our relationship with God and with ourselves becomes stronger and more intimate. Through spirituality we transcend our own limitations and the barriers which religions create to become firmly established in sameness and tranquility. Thus, we cannot ignore the importance of tapas in building our character and conduct and strengthening our moral and spiritual awareness.

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